Prison union calls for strip searches rethink

Finlay Spratt, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Prison Officer's Association Northern Ireland. Picture by Brian Little

Finlay Spratt, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Prison Officer‘s Association Northern Ireland. Picture by Brian Little

THE prison officers’ union has called for a rethink on the routine use of full body searches in Ulster’s jails.

Finlay Spratt of the Prison Officers Association (POA) believes the practice can never be dispensed with completely, but is angry at the lack of progress on introducing new technology.

The POA chairman described the justice minister’s failure to introduce state-of-the-art search equipment as “completely unacceptable” – claiming the delays were causing unnecessary tensions within our prisons.

“The governor of a prison must always reserve the right to authorise a full body search but, in this day and age, there’s no excuse for not introducing the type of search equipment used in airports,” Mr Spratt said.

“If these new machines are good enough to stop people bringing things on to aeroplanes, with hundreds of people on board, then they should be adequate for prison establishments.”

Republican groups have been campaigning for an end to strip searches for some time and have found an unlikely ally in the prison officers’ union.

“The fact is, the prison officers on the wings have to deal with the problems caused by these decisions which are not of their making, yet they are the ones who bear the brunt of the backlash,” Mr Spratt said.

The NI Prison Service is currently undergoing a radical overhaul following recommendations made by a review panel.

Although the POA agrees with the vast majority of the suggested changes, Mr Spratt is opposed to some aspects of the process.

“The arrogant attitude of senior management in implementing the changes is breathtaking. The whole prison review process is overly expensive, yet they’re creating an impression that the existing prison officers themselves are poor value for money,” he said.

“The proposed £18,000 starting salary for the new custody officers does not reflect the true nature of the job, particularly for those required to work with protesting republican prisoners in Maghaberry.

“A prison officer in the Republic will be earning double that of a new custody officer in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Spratt said almost 600 officers had volunteered for redundancy due to low morale.

The review is a waste of public money. We already have a highly-paid director general yet they’re paying over £130,000 to a ‘change manager,’ as well as other staff, to oversee the process.

“They’re also forcing through unpopular shift changes based on a private sector model and the whole process will achieve very little other than create more jobs for civil servants.”

And he added: “As well as that, we feel we’re being used as a political football and that our history is being taken away from us at every turn.”

A spokeswoman for the NI Prison Service said “alternative technologies” to body searches were being explored including the possibility of low-dose X-ray technology.

In relation to the cost of the prisons’ review she said: “Reviews completed to date have demonstrated that there are widespread efficiencies and savings which can be implemented without detriment and indeed with improvements to front-line services. The current cost of delivering services is highly disproportionate due to the high salary levels for existing prison officers.”

The spokeswoman added: “The starting salary for new custody officers is highly competitive within the local and national markets. Those who successfully complete the first year will progress over a number of years to the top of the scale at £23,000 which compares very favourably with other jurisdictions. The role also carries additional benefits in pension, security of employment and future promotion prospects.”

WITH MANY THANKS TO : THE NEWSLETTER.

David Ford ‘actively’ pursuing alternatives to prison strip-searching

Justice Minister David Ford
David Ford again defended his decision not to publish a report into strip-searching
 
The justice minister has said he is actively pursuing other alternatives to full body searching in Northern Ireland prisons.
David Ford said his department was “actively following up on what the alternatives are”.

He again defended his decision not to publish the findings of a Prison Service study into other options to strip-searching at Maghaberry Prison.

He said the report contained sensitive material relating to security issues.

“If we were to publish it, it would have to be so heavily redacted that it really would be absolutely meaningless,” he added.

Mr Ford’s decision has been criticised by Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney and the SDLP‘s John Dallat.

Mr McCartney has urged the justice minister to find alternatives to the “humiliating and degrading” searches.

Mr Ford admitted the process was “not particularly pleasant for either the officers carrying it out or for the prisoners”.

But he said the searches were necessary until a suitable alternative was found.

Mr Ford said the use of an x-ray system was one of the options being considered.

Prison reform campaigners have argued that full body searches are fuelling support for dissident republicans.

Last year, a group calling itself “the family and friends support group for republican prisoners Maghaberry” protested about strip-searching at the jail.

The minister denied claims by those protesting against the searches that the external arrangements had been relaxed.

“An agreement was made and it related to the issues of searching within the prison,” he said.

“It did not cover the issue, which applies to every prison in the UK, that there must be full body searching on entry to and exit from prison.”

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WITH MANY THANKS TO : BBC NEWS NI.

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