Inspectorate publishes findings of prisoner pre-release testing review

Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) has today (8 October 2019) published the findings of an independent review of arrangements in place within the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) to test prisoners prior to their release from custody.
The work was carried out at the request of the Department of Justice (DoJ) when concerns were raised after a prisoner absconded and others were photographed while released from NIPS custody in late 2018.

“This review looked the criteria applied and parameters in place within the NIPS under which prisoners could participate in all forms of accompanied and unaccompanied temporary release from prison under the NIPS pre-release testing process,” said Brendan McGuigan, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.

“Previous CJI prison inspection reports had found the NIPS pre-release testing process to have been working well. We have acknowledged in this review that temporary release from prison provides important information to aid decision making around managing risk, assessing the suitability of a prisoner for release back into the community, and maintaining public safety.

“During this review Inspectors found the processes and procedures in place within the NIPS around pre-release testing were generally functioning well, but they identified areas in which improvements could and should be made, particularly in relation to the use and operation of the NIPS’ external activity schemes,” said the Chief Inspector.

Inspectors were concerned that these schemes - which aimed to incentivise long-term prisoners’ and promote their physical and mental well-being – did not have any explicit or consistent rationale and their operation depended upon the discretion of the various prison governors.

“While to date the use of discretion had not been proven wrong and the schemes’ staff to prisoner ratio numbers were high, Inspectors identified that a small number of prisoners, who were ineligible for temporary release from prison due to the length of the sentence, had participated in these external activity schemes,” said Mr McGuigan.

Mr McGuigan said Inspectors also identified that the assessment process was less structured than with other forms of temporary release. 

The Chief Inspector indicated that while the NIPS had accepted mistakes had been made and already taken steps to address these issues, Inspectors believed more should be done to regularise the operation of these schemes.

“We have therefore recommended as part of this review that the NIPS publish a rationale and the operating procedures for external activity schemes in a policy document.  This policy should outline the criteria for prisoners to participate in external activity schemes and extent to which governors’ discretion may apply.

“It should also reflect the importance of notifying victims registered with the Prisoner Release Victim Information Scheme (PRVIS) when individual prisoners are given approval to participate in external activity schemes,” he stated.

Mr McGuigan also urged all victims to register with the PRVIS so that they could be informed of decisions made in relation to prisoners and their release, as there was no automatic entitlement to this information without first registering with the scheme.

Despite these issues, Mr McGuigan said that at the time of this review, Inspectors had found significant resources were deployed by the NIPS and the Probation Board for Northern Ireland in support of the pre-release testing process.

“Staff selection and training was good and there was a substantial level of collaboration between the two agencies.  Risk assessments were at the heart of all decisions and approval rates were generally high,” he said.

The Chief Inspector however said the testing of prisoners who had been in custody for substantial periods of time in conditions similar to those they would face in the community, by its definition, could never be completely risk free.

“It is therefore imperative that members of the public – and victims of crime in particular - have confidence in the way the NIPS makes its decisions and the rigour that is applied when determining if, when and in what circumstances, a prisoner is considered for release from custody – even for the shortest period of time.

“The public have the right to expect that such arrangements are administered as safely as possible, and that the robustness of the process - and competence of the staff involved - are commensurate with best practice at all times,” concluded the Chief Inspector.