Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 22nd February 2016.

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Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 22nd February 2016

4. Mr A Maginness asked the Minister of Justice what assistance is being provided to prisoners to better prepare them for their return to society. (AQO 9671/11-16)

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

9. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Justice for his assessment of the Prime Minister's statement on 8 February 2016 that prisons should be places of care, not just punishment, where the environment is conducive to rehabilitation and mending lives. (AQO 9676/11-16)

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 4 and 9 together. Both questions go to the heart of what prison is for. I have often said that people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Recognising that the vast majority of prisoners will return to our community, we have done much in recent years to ensure that we use the time that people spend in prison to address the types of behaviour that put them in prison, to rehabilitate them and to prepare them for return to society.

In September last year, I published 'Supporting Change: A Strategic Approach to Desistance', setting out my Department's commitment to provide a flexible, person-centred approach that reduces reoffending. The Prison Service contributes to the strategy by making rehabilitation central to how prisons operate and by providing opportunities for people to change and make a positive contribution to their families and to wider society.

The prisoner development model supports, challenges and motivates people throughout their time in prison. Individual risks, needs and strengths are identified so that a structured, tailored personal development plan is agreed with the prisoner to assist them as they prepare for release. When appropriate, people in custody may also participate in programmes to address the distorted thinking and attitudes that led to their offending behaviour, thereby reducing the likelihood of future offending.

Belfast Metropolitan College and North West Regional College provide a wide curriculum of learning and skills across prison establishments, all of which will result in an accredited outcome. The Prison Service also works in partnership with employers to provide work experience and job-sampling opportunities for prisoners prior to their release.

In all those ways, we have put rehabilitation and transformational change at the heart of the Prison Service in Northern Ireland. That remains the direction of our prison service, and the Prime Minister's recent statement suggests that those in England and Wales are now on the same path.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

I call Ms — sorry, Mr — Alban Maginness for his supplementary question. I beg your pardon.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

Not at all, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for his answer. Progress has certainly been made in relation to providing the means for the rehabilitation of offenders, but much more work needs to be done. Will the Minister outline any plans or ideas that he may have on expanding the area of employment that ex-offenders are able to avail themselves of in order to provide for their full integration back into the community?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Mr Maginness puts his finger on one of the key issues to do with rehabilitation, which is the opportunity for employment or, rather, constructive, worthwhile activity. We have certainly seen some significant improvements, particularly at Hydebank Wood, but we have also seen significant opportunities for employment and voluntary service based at Magilligan in recent times. We have a number of enterprises based in our prisons that employ people in prison, as they leave prison and for a short period afterwards. The Thinking Cup Cafe and Book Reserve in south Belfast, which works with young men who have family responsibilities and assists them to get into a culture of employment as they leave, is the right kind of example. I am also conscious of the fact that, despite the significant increase in that work, there remain prisoners who do not have the opportunities either in learning and skills or direct work. It is an area where we need to continue to work with some of our voluntary sector partners outside to get the best possible opportunities.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

I thank the Minister for his response and commend him on his determination and his work to reform the criminal system, focusing on rehabilitation and the reduction of reoffending. Does he believe that the prison reform programme has made significant changes that will improve outcomes for prisoners and wider society?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Yes, I certainly do. We are conscious that, this week, we are due to see the latest update on the Criminal Justice Inspection report on Maghaberry prison. However, alongside some of the short-term difficulties we have seen there, we have seen significant issues. For example, the last meeting of the prison review oversight group signed off on 36 — 90% — of the 40 recommendations made by the prison review team, many of which are about embedding long-term structural change. That is very significant. We have seen massive issues in refresh and improved training for staff across a variety of grades. Hydebank Wood College is the first secure college anywhere in the United Kingdom. We have seen the reopening of Burren House as a step-down facility for men and the opening of Murray House as a step-down facility for women. There are a variety of plans — obviously subject to capital, if anybody wishes to speak to the Finance Minister — to develop all three prisons. There is the very significant partnership with the two colleges in the provision of accredited courses on the same basis as it would happen outside. There is the work that I mentioned on the desistance strategy and on rolling out the Inspire programme for women. All of this shows significant advances in recent years that, I believe, are now part of the culture of the Prison Service and will make a real difference in the years ahead.