Alliance Justice Minister Naomi Long has said she is committed to delivering a menu of measures to enhance support for serving and retired prison staff.
A review was commissioned by Minister Long to ascertain if there is more that could or should be done to help frontline staff. Publishing the two resulting reports, Naomi Long noted that while there was no easy or quick solution, it was hard to disagree with any of the recommendations they contained.
Speaking in the Assembly, Minister Long said: “Prison staff provide a vital public service. They work in a challenging, complex and at times volatile environment that for most of society is out of sight and out of mind. They deal with some the most difficult and dangerous members of our community and they do so in a way that is professional, compassionate and caring.
“The truth is that when everyone else in society has failed to address offending behaviour we ask our prison staff to challenge and support those individuals to change.
“It is a matter of record that 80% of those coming into our care left school under the age of 16; 47% had no qualifications, and 69% were not in employment. Over half had a history of alcohol and/or drug misuse; a third had mental health issues; and 58% had a history of self-harm.”
Naomi Long added: “When we consider the immense contribution prison staff have made in the past and are making under difficult circumstances right now, it is right that we do everything we can to support them.
“For operational staff, that is those currently serving, the report recognises the efforts of Prison Service, but equally, states that much more needs to be done. It makes 12 recommendations, and while many will be straight forward to implement, others will take more time because services will have to be procured and additional funding secured.
“Alongside the recommendations I am also publishing an Action Plan with very clear timescales for implementation. I believe, and my view is shared by the authors of the reports, that we are approaching implementation with commitment and ambition, not least in the context of the current pressures caused by the pandemic.
“One thing is very clear, there is no easy or quick solution; a menu of measures is needed if we are to support our prison staff in the way we should. That is what this report highlights and what I am committed to provide as we move forward.”
Turning to the report focusing on retired staff, Minister Long added: “I share the view that the lack of bespoke support available for former Prison Officers, when compared to that available to former members of the police through the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust, is a glaring omission.
“This is something that must and will be addressed. However, we should not underestimate the scale of the challenge we will face in addressing the needs of former staff and it will take considerable time to do so.
“I want again to pay tribute to all Prison Service staff for what they have achieved. I very much value their work and I want to, through this review, ensure they are receiving the support they need.”
Minister Long also praised the authors of the reports - Siobhan Keating, Gillian Robinson and Graham Walker - for the work they have undertaken.