Prison Review Team Final Report

Published on November 21 2011

Prisoner Ombudsman’s article submitted to Belfast Telegraph on the Review of the NI Prison Service

The window of opportunity to realise a comprehensive and integrated programme of reform for Northern Ireland’s prison system has opened. Unified political will is now needed to drive much needed improvements forward, says Prisoner Ombudsman, Pauline McCabe.

This week’s second report by the Prison Review Team, chaired by the highly experienced former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dame Anne Owers presents a unique opportunity for the much needed fundamental reform of Northern Ireland’s prison system. The Owers’ report provides a comprehensive, up to date picture of the entire system which reconciles many issues that have been identified time and again through various reports from my own office of the Prisoner Ombudsman, amongst others.

This report is more than a review which rehearses the short-comings of our prisons. It is a roadmap that sets out clearly what needs to be done and the imperative to act urgently if the people of Northern Ireland are to have the prison system they are entitled to and which plays its role in making Northern Ireland a safer society.

The Owers’ review must be recognised as the complete package and must be implemented in full. The task at hand is not easy. The prison system is complex and government agencies and departments from justice, to health and employment and learning need to sign up to the change programme. What is clear is that a focus on the underlying issues of management, leadership, culture and industrial relations must be viewed in the wider context and success can only be achieved if a fully joined up approach is taken, supported by a strong political will.

In these times of cost cutting across the entire public sector, members of the public who feel disassociated from criminality and prisoners may question whether prison reform should be an urgent priority. For those who think we cannot afford to implement Anne Owers’ recommendations consider the cost of not doing so.

The cost per prisoner place is around £75,000 per year. Two weeks ago, I visited a private prison in England where the cost per prisoner place is less than one third of the NI cost and reducing reoffending is at the core of its operation.

It is important to emphasise that this is not a liberal view that sets out to give prisoners a soft landing and undermine the rights of victims. A system that offers redress, while moving to reduce reoffending through preparing prisoners with the skills to reintegrate and meaningfully contribute to society on release, will ultimately instil confidence in victims and the general public that crimes will not be repeated. It is therefore imperative that moves to reduce reoffending must be at the heart of prison reform.

It is also absolutely vital that current work to review sentencing, in line with the Hillsborough Agreement, recognises that while those who have committed serious crimes should go to prison, fine defaulters and others who have committed relatively minor, non-violent crimes are most appropriately dealt with through an alternative punitive system of community sentencing. In very many cases, community-based rehabilitation and restorative justice, backed by mental health, drug dependency, adult literacy and related support programmes, has been unequivocally shown to reduce reoffending. Yet we are currently spending huge amounts of money sending fine defaulters to prison whilst, at the same time, cutting the probation service budget. It makes absolutely no sense. Addressing this, in addition to putting in place long overdue measures to speed up the criminal justice process so that prisoners do not spend so long on remand, would reduce the prison population significantly and make the change process much more cost effective.

The most important factor in now achieving success is that a properly joined up plan, covering all of the strands identified by the prison review team, and involving all of the relevant government agencies and departments, must urgently be put in place. What can not happen is that the Owers’ report is viewed as a wish list that can be cherry picked. The consequence of this, almost certainly, is that good money will be thrown after bad. The prison service Strategic Efficiency and Effectiveness (SEE) programme is one important strand of the change programme, but it is just one of a number of elements that are required within the overarching programme of reform. Perhaps most significantly, an integrated approach really is the only way to ensure that any cost savings that can be achieved are delivered, in order to provide a more efficient use of public money.


Review Reports | Prison Review Team NI