Prison officers must feel safe as they go about their work

Morning View
Morning View

There are, it seems, two aspects to the prison dispute among staff at Maghaberry.

One of the grievances of the prison officers relates to their safety.

The other aspect seems to relate to pay.

This month there was a disturbing incident at Maghaberry when prison cell doors opened due to an electrical fault.

According to an officer who contacted the News Letter, inmates ran riot. The prisoners took control of the landings.

Officers say it took 40 minutes to bring prisoners under control, the Prison Service says they were back in their cells within 10. But one thing is clear: it was a serious situation.

The same weekend inmates began fires elsewhere in the prison (officers say four blazes, the Prison Service says two).

These incidents underline the dangers facing prison officers on a daily basis when they are in their workplace.

In addition, they are at risk at home from the perpetual threat of being murdered by dissident republican terrorists. Both David Black and Adrian Ismay suffered that terrible fate.

The running of prisons in Northern Ireland has been subject to much scrutiny in recent years. There are always, waiting on the sidelines, some people who seize on any findings to imply or indeed state that prisoners are badly treated.

However, our first priority must always be the wellbeing of the men and women in the Prison Service who have to deal with inmates, some of them extremely dangerous, up close.

Conditions for prisoners in Northern Ireland are not hard. Even pre-meditated murderers are typically free within 20 years after serving a minimum tariff of a supposed ‘life’ term.

There is a powerful argument that the Province needs more prison spaces to faciliate longer sentences for the worst crimes, but few politicians seem inclined to make such a case.

The financial part of the prison officers’ unhappiness is a matter for debate and discussion. But we must ensure that they feel entirely safe as they go about their job in close proximity to people who would cause them serious harm.