Prison Reform; 2013 the year to see change?

RightsNI is delighted to welcome this guest post written by Jacqueline Monahan, Justice and Policing Co-ordinator at the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ).


In the past 10 years well over 40 reports and reviews into the prison system have been written by a range of agencies. The same concerns were often repeated in these reports demonstrating that core recommendations to the prison service had not been effectively, efficiently or consistently acted upon.

 Indeed, over the years the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS), and the Department of Justice (DOJ) – or its predecessor prior to devolution, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) – has repeatedly been called upon to create a more suitable women’s prison, remove fine defaulters from the prison system and to deal with concerns around the emphasis on security within the prison, the disproportionate cost per prisoner, and the high level of staff absenteeism, among other issues. Through the years the response to the reviews and reports was slow and ineffective.

Finally, in line with the Hillsborough Agreement, in June 2010 the Minister for Justice appointed the Prison Review Team (PRT). This team was led by Anne Owers, a former Chief Inspector of Prisons, in a ‘review of the conditions of detention, management and oversight of all prisons.’ The PRT published its Final Report (the Owers Report) in October 2011. At the time they stated that their interim report, which had been published the previous February, had ‘identified significant and long-lasting problems in the Northern Ireland Prison Service and called for a programme of change and transformation of culture, approach and working practices’. Worryingly, they wrote  ‘little has changed in practice in the succeeding eight months’. They warned: ‘this is a unique opportunity to create a public sector prison system that is a model of excellence. It should not be wasted. Though the transformation will take time to complete, the next six months will be crucial’. When the final report was published, the Minister of Justice acknowledged that ‘end to end reform of the Prison Service cannot be achieved overnight’.


Despite some significant challenges to the implementation of a courageous and principled Owers Report, including the threat by the First Minister to resign if British symbols were addressed, the Minister for Justice declared, ‘reform of the Northern Ireland Prison Service is unstoppable’.

Unfortunately the start of the reform programme has been protracted: in December 2011 the Minister appointed a Prisons Reform Oversight Group to oversee the implementation of the PRT recommendations. However, membership of the group was not complete until spring 2012 when, given a significant number of PRT recommendations related to health issues, the DHSSPS Permanent Secretary Andrew McCormick joined the Group. Other delays were caused by the employment and then speedy resignation of the NIPS employed ‘change manager’ whose role was to take forward the Strategic Efficiency and Effectiveness Programme (SEE), as well as other senior Managers within the prison system.  The pace of reform now appears to be picking up.

However, an important issue for CAJ is the present lack of an overall Implementation Plan that incorporates all the PRT recommendations and involves not just NIPS but also DOJ, DHSSPS and Department of Employment and Learning (DEL).  Given that the entire prison system is to be addressed by the reform, it is perhaps unavoidable that transformation and developments will appear incoherent and piecemeal. But an overall ‘big picture’ of the reform plan is needed.

Oversight of implementation is made more difficult without an official Implementation Plan and, as has happened in the past, recommendations can be ‘cherry-picked’ or fall through the cracks and go unnoticed and unimplemented, or implemented only in part.  Nonetheless, the oversight mechanism appears to be thorough, at least for DOJ and operational healthcare recommendations.

The NIPS ‘Change Team’ has created ‘descriptions’ which ‘provide clarity on the definition, scope and outcomes for each [PRT] recommendation’. Once NIPS, DOJ or DHSSPS believe that a PRT recommendation has been completed, ‘outputs’ are then presented to the Oversight Group to sign off as implemented. The Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI) (or health service inspectorate – the RQIA) will in turn provide an independent evaluation of the implementation of recommendations by measuring ‘outcomes’ against baseline data which was collected by the NIPS Change Team at the start of the reform process. By considering the intent behind each recommendation and the ‘spirit’ of implementation, CJI aims to provide an assessment of the resulting ‘outcomes for prisoners’ so as to ensure that the implementation process is not merely a ‘tick-box’ exercise. Whilst to date no PRT recommendations have reached the stage of completion having been put through this process, it is nevertheless welcome that the structure is now in place.

Turning to specific issues:

Although the Millimetre Wave Body Scanners for searching prisoners have been piloted in Magilligan and Hydebank Wood, there is continued delay with the Transmission X-Ray technology being used at Maghaberry; nonetheless recent developments have taken place resulting in a number of separated prisoners ending their 18-month long ‘dirty protest’, suggesting that progress has been made to end full-body searching.  This protest was, in part, due to issues around body searching, a long-standing source of contention for separated prisons.  Subsequent to the August 2010 ‘Roe House Agreement’ it had been hoped that the introduction of the BOSS chair would put an end to full-body searching, except in the most exceptional cases.  Although this device has apparently ended ‘squat searches’ there has been continued conflict over the issue.  The Millimetre Wave Body Scanner has reduced the need for searches and prisoners are seemingly only physically searched if the scanner picks up a signal of something ‘suspicious’. The delay with rolling out the Transmission X-ray technology is based on concerns around its potential health impact. It has never been used in a prison situation and is apparently at least a year away from being installed as NIPS are undertaking medical research in relation to potential long-term implications.

The long-standing prison staff Framework Agreement was replaced by the Staff Deployment Agreement between the Prison Officers Association (POA) and NIPS. This agreement includes a new ‘operating model’ which aims to create a less security-focused prison (subject of much criticism in the past) by amending staff to prisoner ratios, introducing new roles such as Custody Officer and Offender Supervisors and simplifying the management structure. Although there had been a ‘work to rule’ protest by prison officers in Hydebank Wood, which led in the early autumn 2012 to increased lock down and prisoners not being able to avail of education services, the protest did not spread to the other prisons and it seems that the problem at Hydebank Wood has been resolved, partly because of the new Staff Deployment Agreement. Hydebank was the first of the prisons to roll out the new Target Operating Model, which is essentially the new shift patterns, staff titles and roles and simplification of the management hierarchy resulting from the PRT recommendations which amount to a 5-day working week and no overtime.

The PRT also recommended people under 18 years old should not be held at Hydebank Wood. This requires new legislation and the Minister for Justice has indicated that this will be introduced in 2013 but as of 1 November 2012 young offenders will no longer be detained at Hydebank Wood unless the circumstances are most exceptional.

In parallel, the Minister has agreed to propose legislation to change fine default to a civil offence rather than a criminal offence so as to keep fine defaulters out of prison. In conjunction to this a Supervised Activity Orders pilot scheme was rolled out in several areas over the course of 2012.

Notwithstanding the progress, several specific concerns remain. One relates to the recognised need for cultural change within the prison system. Progress on the new code of ethics and code of discipline, two aspects needed for facilitating the creation of a new ethos and culture, has been slow. It seems that they are still under development and have to be approved by the NIPS management board, the trade union partners and the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP).

It was also recognised that it was necessary to bring new staff on board (which required the retirement of at least some existing staff). There had been criticism that those officers taking part in the Voluntary Early Retirement ‘exit’ scheme could in fact re-apply to NIPS. However, NIPS senior staff argued that although individuals could apply regardless of whether they were ex-staff, the job which would subsequently be advertised would in fact be different to that which individuals were leaving and that the hiring procedures were set out and would be applied transparently and fairly. In October 2012 CAJ asked NIPS whether any staff members who took up the VER scheme subsequently reapplied to work within the prisons in Northern Ireland (either directly through NIPS, the Department of Health or through any other agency) and if any were rehired?  The response we received was as follows:

No former Prison Service staff have been re-employed by NIPS after taking redundancy from 01 September 2009.

The Prison Service has engaged the services of Resource agency staff to temporarily fill current vacancies in the Prisoner Escorting and Court Custody Service Group (PECCS Group).  Following the completion of training we will have a pool of 24 temporary staff; we will use 20 staff on a daily basis.

Five of those engaged are former prison staff, 3 of them left the Service under the VER Scheme earlier this year.

On broader questions it has been reported that the recruitment process did not diversify staff (in terms of ethnicity and/or religion) as much as had been hoped. It was also reported the new recruits have ‘exceptional’ capabilities and have ‘raised the bar’ of expectations of prison staff.

In relation to women a purpose-built custodial facility has been discussed for years and it appears as though the Minister is fully committed to finally creating a dedicated women’s centre, although approval from DFP is still needed. The Minister has approved the development of a new, separate secure custodial facility for a small number of women which will seemingly be balanced with alternatives to custody. Inline with the PRT recommendation, the Inspire model is being piloted until 2015 as the norm for dealing with all women who offend.  At such time it seems that a decision as to whether to roll this out permanently will be made.  Baseline data is being collated at present in order to assist with this evaluation.  A decision has apparently been made for an Inspire-model facility for young people.

Minister for Justice favours the shift of Hydebank Wood to a secure college and has instructed DOJ staff, with support from DEL, to undertake a Concept Development Paper as to how this can be done in reality. It seems that approval is still pending from DFP.

In relation to the PRT recommendations for the development of a desistance strategy by NIPS and the development of a cross-departmental safer society strategy, it appears that a number of things are underway:

DOJ is leading on a cross-departmental strategy to reduce offending, to which NIPS is contributing in a number of ways, including the development of a desistance strategy.  What this means in practice is still not clear although NIPS trying to ascertain what is needed to create pathways out of crime so that they can deliver effective services to prisoners.  The Employability Strategy is key in the resettlement pathways to reduce the risk of re-offending. 

 Moreover, the strategy to reduce offending, which was out for public consultation until 30 September, underpins the Community Safety Strategy. However, the initial community safety strategy was proposed prior to the recommendation by the PRT so whether a further ‘cross-departmental safer society strategy’ will be created is not clear.

One final concern is that no mention of human rights has been made by NIPS in relation to prison reform despite the fact that the PRT Interim Report (February 2011) recommended that the vision and aims of the prison system should be in line with human rights and indeed international best practice and the PRT Final Report (October 2011) stated that ‘Human rights are not a list of don’ts but a live, practical and positive grounding for running a prison.’ CAJ has long espoused that building a prison system founded on human rights is for a good of all: prisoners, prison staff and society. In fact, in December 2010 CAJ published Prisons and Prisoners in Northern Ireland: Putting human rights at the heart of prison reform which noted that NIPS had committed itself in the Corporate Plan 2009-12 and Business Plan 2009-10 “to protecting the human rights and dignity of our staff, prisoners and all others with whom we come into contact” and [had] highlighted in its plan to “continue to take forward a comprehensive review of all…existing policies, practices and procedures to ensure that they are human rights compliant”. Worryingly, NIPS’ value on human rights appears to be watered down in that the more recent Business Plan and Corporate Plan merely states ‘we will continue to implement all statutory obligations, e.g., those in relation to Equality and Diversity; Human Rights; Freedom of Information and data control; and Health and Safety’.

Further to the PRT recommendations, the Minister reported that NIPS has been addressing concerns relating to the treatment of, services for and general data collation and reporting around ethnic minorities and foreign nationals.  However, the production of quarterly updates by the Equality and Diversity Committees in each prison has been seemingly delayed and are pending the baseline data which is presently being gathered by CJI.  Regardless of apparent improvements, it was nonetheless disappointing that no one from NIPS was present at that NICEM conference on Race and Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland in January 2013, despite NIPS being mentioned in the NICEM report: ‘Broadly therefore there remain issues and questions in terms of the NIPS and race’.

To finish on a positive note, it would seem that all the players – DOJ, NIPS, CJI and the Oversight Group – recognise that Northern Ireland has a real opportunity. Northern Ireland is small with a relatively small prison population which offers the prospect to be innovative in rolling out policies and practices. As one official has stated, there is the opportunity to put Northern Ireland on the map for other countries to look to when considering prison reform, offering almost ‘prison tourism’.