DUP MLA Maurice Morrow has welcomed the extension of existing support services for police officers to be made available to serving and retired prison officers, which has been confirmed in a written response by the Minister for Justice.
Lord Morrow said he had asked the Justice Minister to outline her plans for the extension of the Police Rehabilitation & Retraining Trust (PRRT) to include both serving and retired prison officers, and a timeline for when she anticipates this would be functional.
“In a written reply the Minster has confirmed her attendance at a meeting with the PRRT after which she asked officials to develop a proposal that would enable both current and retired prison officers to access services similar to serving and former police officers," he said.
“The Minister states the prison service held an initial meeting with the Trust on 6 December to discuss the nature, likely demand and type of services that could be offered. Further discussions are to take place before the end of the year.
“I am delighted to say the Minister anticipates the agreed services will be offered to former and serving prison officers early in the New Year.
“I have been pressing this issue for years, but until recently my concerns and the plight of prison officers fell on deaf, uncaring ears.
“Thankfully the new Minister for Justice has looked beyond well-rehearsed rhetoric and seen the situation for what is. For too long prison officers were expected to tolerate all forms of physical and mental abuse, as well as security threats, attacks and generalised terror. There was a definite culture of an expectation to grin and bear such behaviour - something that lies outside human nature.
“Police officers have long-established support in these instances, but prison officers, tasked with supervising some of the most dangerous individuals in society, whilst keeping them safe and protected, were ignored.
“I have met with many prison officers – both serving and retired – who all tell the same story. They are shattered, demeaned and degraded by their experiences yet cruelly abandoned by the system. Those who permitted this appalling culture to thrive should be utterly ashamed of their conduct.
“I refer again to the report on prison officer welfare by Dr Jackie Bates-Gaston from 2013, which was buried by the NI Prison Service board, no doubt because it contained inconvenient truths.
“Dr Bates-Gaston approached the issue from the perspective of caring for the carers. Prison officers cannot be expected to maintain the welfare of prisoners if they are traumatised and burnt out themselves. It’s common sense. I am pleased the Minister has ordered her officials to now study Dr Bates-Gaston’s excellent report. Whilst the latest provision is to be warmly welcomed it is long overdue, and insurmountable damage may have been caused to many serving and retired Prison Officers due to the delay. Nevertheless I commend the Minister for taking this decisive step toward making a difference, so soon into her post.”