Uncertainty over jail future ‘killing staff’

Some staff at Magilligan Prison say as soon as jobs open up for the new DARD headquarters in Ballykelly they will be applying for a transfer because they believe a decision has already been made to close the jail in six years’ time.

That was the revelation from one worker who has been at the prison for almost two decades who spoke after a meeting where the proposal to decommission Magilligan jail was discussed in Limavady on Monday night.

Despite an assurance from Justice Minister David Ford no decision has been taken, or would be taken until the consultation on the Prisons Estate review is complete, one prison worker who spoke with the ‘Journal’ wasn’t convinced.

“It all seems to be prisoner-orientated and they’re not considering staff views at all,” said the worker. “I have no hope whatsoever in this consultation. It’s a waste of time. We will be putting in transfers for the DARD jobs in Ballykelly as soon as we can.”

The worker said: “The majority of staff would have to travel to Maghaberry if it came to it, but it would be a long working day and a lot of staff have children, so it’s just not feasible. All the money they’ve spent already on plans for the Prison, costing millions, and now it’s all wasted. The Justice Minister should remember there is life outside Belfast, but I think the decision has been made already.”

Another worker said the uncertainty surrounding the jail’s future was “killing staff”.

“Morale is very low. I know my staff are putting in for a transfer. For some of us, it’s okay, we are retiring, but for the younger staff it’s a big concern.”

Reminding the minister and senior officials at the meeting the Prison Service was “for all of Northern Ireland” was local MP Gregory Campbell.

“If they close Magilligan and relocate it to a site that they would have to purchase near Maghaberry you would then have all four prison facilities in the Greater Belfast area and none throughout the rest of N. Ireland and that doesn’t make sense,” he told the ‘Journal’.

“You’d have to pay up to £10 million to transfer people to pay for their commute between Limavady and the Lisburn area for them to go to work each day for three years. Then you’d have to buy the land, which is already sold, and then you’d have to buy it back. The more you look at this the more it makes sense to rebuild at Magilligan. I think the quicker they come to that conclusion and make an announcement by Christmas, or early New Year, then everyone can move on.”

To decommission Magilligan, and account for all associated costs, Mr. Campbell claimed it would cost in excess of £125-130 million, which he says is money that just isn’t there.

“It all points toward to ‘rebuild at Magilligan’ and I am hopeful it’s more than 50-50 to rebuild, but in the next next few months, hopefully, that will become 100 per cent. In the meantime we have to keep pressing the issue. We should remember the issue was fought and won five years ago and it needs to be fought and won again this year.”

The Prison Officers’ Association have launched a campaign against the proposal, and hope to get 20,000 signatures for a petition to take to Stormont next month.

Minister Ford told the ‘Journal’ the consultation was ‘genuine’ and warned those campaigning to keep the Prison open: “The key issue has to be about listening to solid facts, serious proposals, not just simply signatures on a petition saying ‘we don’t like this’.”

The Roe Valley Chamber of Trade and Limavady and Coleraine Councils will meet the Justice Minister to voice their opposition to the proposal.

“I’d say to the Chamber, and the two councils, the issues are not that ‘we don’t like this’ but, what is the best way we can provide facilities and, have you a business case to make as to how Magilligan will be part of that?” said Mr. Ford, who said he was “honestly not sure if the figures that are being bandied around are accurate”.

“Not many of our staff live in the immediate area. If someone is travelling a distance to Magilligan they may well continue to live in the same house and travel a distance to work elsewhere if they are transferred. Obviously, there are concerns about the most junior administration grades as opposed to the uniform staff, who are technically mobile, and if they were to be moved we would seek to accommodate people who didn’t want to move, but that’s a bit further down the line.”

When asked when a decision regarding Magilligan is likely, the minister told the ‘Journal’: “I certainly haven’t made my mind up. We are closing the consultation shortly but, there will be some detailed work that has to be done after that so, I can’t give a definite statement. I would hope, early in the New Year we will have definite proposals.”