By Niall McCracken
NORTHERN Ireland’s prison system is seeking to cut down on controversial practices such as strip searching, but critics claim reform is too slow.
In an interview with The Detail, Director General of the service Sue McAllister revealed that female prisoners were no longer routinely subject to full body strip searching, but said that the practice was still used on male prisoners.
She said the change showed that the system responds to criticism, but other experts say more could be done to boost the reform agenda.
In a statement to The Detail the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) confirmed that since January 2014 it has been running a “gender specific pilot” on searching procedures in Hydebank Wood female prison.
A spokesperson said that a full body search on a female prisoner could now only happen in response to “specific intelligence” and requires the authorisation of a senior manager.
The function of full body searching is to detect contraband and to deprive prisoners of its use. In October last year, the Criminal Justice Inspectorate found that female prisoners in Northern Ireland were being strip-searched far too often.
The Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI) said inmates at Ash House – the North’s only female prison – were subjected to an unnecessary and disproportionate number of strip searches.
In recent years dissident republican prisoners in Maghaberry have staged protests over this practice.
A ‘dirty protest’ by separated republican prisoners in Roe House that had been ongoing for months, ended in November 2012.
In its 2012/13 report the Independent Monitoring Board highlighted the damage caused to the fabric of the building by the protest as well as the extensive and costly programme of refurbishment.
The prison service refers to the practice of full body strip searching as “full searching”. The Director General says that at the moment the practice was still necessary for the male prison population, particularly in Maghaberry.
“We have moved to doing far less full searching for male prisoners, but we do still carry out full searching when male prisoners leave or come back to the prison. We believe that that is necessary for safety and security.”
Ms McAllister stressed the importance of highlighting the progress being made in the female prison
She said: “From the start of this year, strip searching or as we call it full searching, has no longer been carried out as routine in the female prison. What that means is that it no longer happens when prisoners have to go to reception, on discharge, when we do a cell search, or when women come in from visits.
“We reserve the authority to do it if we have intelligence to suggest that we have the need to, but that would be in a very small number of cases and we have moved to doing far less full searching on male prisoners also.”
In recent years NIPS has also been criticised for keeping prisoners locked up for long periods of time which experts say creates more opportunities for vulnerable prisoners to dwell on things and for thoughts of self-harm to surface.
Since the office of the Prisoner Ombudsman was established in September 2005 there have been 43 deaths in prison custody in Northern Ireland.
However Ms McAllister says the latest available figures show that they are seeing less lock downs on prison landings than in previous years.
Under a Freedom of Information request The Detail sought a breakdown of the number of unscheduled lockdowns during the last three months of 2013.
The figures show that there were no additional lockdowns in Maghaberry or Magilligan during this period, while the percentage of unscheduled lockdowns for Hydebank Wood never rose above 3%.
The Director General says she hopes positive progress in these areas can be seen as an indicator that the prison service responds to criticism.
“You see far more bad news about prisons than good, that’s just a fact of life. There is a challenge for us in managing public opinion without a doubt and I am always absolutely clear that every penny spent on prisons is a penny not spent on hospitals and schools.
“We are bidding for public funds or savings, but all of the people in our care are citizens, they’re citizens who for a period of time are in prison custody. So it is right that people get care of an equivalent standard and quality to that delivered outside.
“And we are spending significant amounts of public money and it’s absolutely right that we are accountable for what we deliver with that money.”
Queen’s University Professor Phil Scraton co-authored a report into women’s imprisonment within the male young offenders centre at Hydebank Wood in 2007.
He says there is still room for the prison service to become a more open institution.
“The only way issues in our prisons can be resolved is to open it up to outside discussion and get away from the silo mentality of – ‘we know best, we know how it works’.
“It’s about bringing ex-prisoners, academic researchers, NGOs and other organisations that have spent their time in prison to the table and saying to them what messages do we really need to take from the last twenty years”.
The Director General rejected claims that the prison service was in any way under-scrutinised.
She said: “I’ve been a public servant for over 30 years and I have never worked in a part of the public sector that is more scrutinised than the Northern Ireland Prison service. I welcome that and think it’s good that we have that level of scrutiny.
“But let’s be clear, we are comprehensively scrutinised. There is Criminal Justice Inspectorate, we have the independent monitoring boards, we have independent assessors selected by the Justice Minister. We also have academics from across Northern Ireland coming in.”
Professor Scraton maintains that the current system of independent oversight needs to move away from the rigid regulation and inspection format to inviting outside agencies in for continual input.
However Ms McAllister says inviting individuals and organisations into prisons can be a challenge for those running the system on a daily basis, but believes it is also something the prison service here has never shied away from.
“It can be difficult to manage the day to day running of prisons when you do have lots of people wanting to come in and walk around and to talk about what we are doing, logistically it can be a bit of a challenge.
“So it is important that we try to schedule that appropriately because we have nothing to hide and it is in our interest to be open and transparent.”