The UK’s first dedicated prisoner rehab unit is to be piloted in Northern Ireland next year, it has been announced.
The 24/7 purpose-built therapeutic unit will be trialled at Maghaberry maximum security prison in Co Antrim.
Justice Minister David Ford said the new facility would adopt a cutting edge approach to dealing with drug addiction in jails.
“This will be a complete programme regime which will support prisoners to break the cycle of addiction,” he said.
“It is the first of its type in the British Isles and demonstrates the innovative approach prison staff are willing to take to deliver change.”
The new unit located at Glen House is expected to be up and running by early in the New Year. It will cater for 15 inmates who will embark on a 12-week programme of rehabilitation including diet, exercise education as well as addiction distraction techniques.
The announcement comes after the Prison Service announced a major crackdown on drug abuse.
Mr Ford added: “In June I highlighted the issue of addiction in our prisons and announced that a new dual approach would be implemented to tackle this issue. The first part of this was the initiation of intelligence-led searching to replace the standard routine search policy - this is now in place. There is also a Prison Service/PSNI initiative at Maghaberry where they have joined forces to reduce the supply and demand of drugs in the prison.”
Last week 11 prisoners and three visitors at Maghaberry were caught with drugs.
The problem of drug abuse was also investigated in two reports by the Prisoner Ombudsman, who linked the deaths of two prisoners at Maghaberry to the availability of illicit substances and prescription medication.
Mr Ford was updating members of the Stormont Assembly on the progress of prison reform which is half-way through its four-year timetable.
Nine of the 40 recommendations contained within the Prisoner Review Team Report which was led by Dame Anne Owers have been implemented to date.
However, Mr Ford warned that some of the major projects, including the development of a new women’s prison, would not be realised until nearer 2015.
Ash House, the region’s only all-female facility which shares a site in south Belfast with the Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre has been branded unsuitable with inmates frequently subjected to lock-downs.
The Criminal Justice Inspectorate also found that the 60 women prisoners were subjected to excessive and unnecessary number of strip searches.
Mr Ford said he remained committed to the provision of a separate prison for women and claimed “high level” plans could be developed by the end of next year.
It is hoped a new ‘step down’ unit at Alderwood House - a day care facility currently used by the Probation Board located on the edge of the Hydebank site but outside the prison perimeter - could help improve services for women in the interim.
Alderwood House will include employment programmes and residential accommodation and is expected to be open by next year.
Sinn Fein Junior Minister Jennifer McCann said more to be done to ensure the needs of women prisoners.
It was also revealed that the Prison Service voluntary redundancy scheme which has a target of 525 is well advanced.
So far, 457 officers have now left the service with funding secured for a further 35 by the end of this financial year.
Funding is being sought to let another 28 go as soon as possible.
Mr Ford said: “The Prison Service has not yet transformed into the organisation envisaged by Dame Anne Owers and her team but it is an organisation in transition and many people are working to make change a reality.
“Behind the reform is a desire to make our communities safer by working with prisoners to reduce their re-offending risk and that is the driver that will ensure that we ultimately succeed.”