Strip searching in prisons is necessary for the safety of both inmates and staff, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) has claimed.
POA chairman Finlay Spratt was commenting following the publication of a critical report compiled by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI).
According to the CJI report, women prisoners in Northern Ireland are being strip-searched too often at Ash House – the Province’s only female prison.
At Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre, which shares a site with Ash House near south Belfast, safety was a major concern at the facility which houses 171 young men aged between 18 and 21. Inspectors found lessons had not been learned from recent deaths in custody and there was a complacent attitude towards self harm incidents.
Most prisoners spent too long locked in their cells and lacked the opportunity to spend time in the open air, added the report.
Commenting on conditions at Ash House, the report said: “All women were needlessly strip-searched on arrival and randomly after visits, which was excessive.”
Physical conditions at the unit were said to be good, but the inspectors said the site was unsuitable.
“Overall, this was a disappointing inspection,” the report said. However, the POA claims the power to order strip searches must always be available to the prison governors to prevent drugs and other illicit items being smuggled into the prison facilities.
Mr Spratt said: “It is a procedure we have to go through because there is no other alternative. It is necessary for the well-being of everybody and it’s unfortunate that it’s something we have to live with.
“Strip searching is at the discretion of the governor, and if he deems a prisoner needs to the strip-searched then it’s up to him to organise it.
“We don’t have that authority as prison officers so any criticism needs to be directed at the management of the prison service.”
Commenting on the wider issues raised in the report – including criticism of the approach to tackling drugs and a failure to learn lessons from deaths in custody – Mr Spratt said: “Probably what they are saying is quite right – these prisoners are locked up more now than ever they were, as our staffing levels have been cut and we are going down the road of the English [prison management] system.”
Reacting to the publication, Prison Service Director General Sue McAllister said there had been a number of major changes at Hydebank and Ash House since the inspection was carried out in February. She said: “Whilst I acknowledge the negative findings of both reports, it must be borne in mind that this inspection was carried out at what was a very challenging time for the Prison Service, particularly at Hydebank Wood.”
The leadership of the Prison Service is under question following the critical CJI report, Tom Elliott has claimed. The UUP’s justice spokesman said the findings had raised “significant concerns” about two prison regimes that appeared to be on a downward spiral.
“We must remember we are dealing with serious issues here like deaths in custody, mental health issues and tackling drugs,” he said.
“We have heard consistently about staff in the prisons being under-resourced and they therefore cannot manage the prisoners in a way which would be beneficial to all.
“I believe they are prepared to deliver a first-class service but require the support and resources of the senior authorities.”
Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney said his party “noted with concern another damning report” into the management of Ash House and Hydebank Wood.