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.