Inspectorate calls for justice system to re-think prisoner escort and court custody arrangements

A report into the provision of prisoner escort and court custody arrangements in Northern Ireland has recommended the criminal justice system re-examines how these services are currently delivered.

The independent inspection report published today (13 October) by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI), looked at how prisoners were transported by the Northern Ireland Prison Service Prison Escort and Court Custody Service and by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
It also took into account the work undertaken by two private contractors, G4S and Resource, on behalf of the United Kingdom Border Agency and Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre.
“With around 18,000 prisoners escorted to and from courts, prisons, hospitals, police custody, interviews and juvenile detention centres and over 200,000 people each year moving through the court system, prisoner escorting and court custody is an important element of the work of the criminal justice agencies in Northern Ireland,” said Dr Michael Maguire, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.
“During 2009 there were no releases made in error, the number of assaults on prisoners by prisoners was low and the majority of prisoners arrived on time for their court appearance.
“The inspection however showed that the overall efficiency of the escorting and court custody service is not easily measured as it is made up of four main agencies and a number of providers, each with their own way of undertaking business,” he said.
“In 2009-10 the Northern Ireland Prison Service Prison Escort and Court Custody Service carried out the majority of prisoner escort and court custody work. This service was delivered within budget however, the cost of sick absence within the Service was in the order of £300,000 per annum,” added Dr Maguire.
This is a saving that could potentially be realised if this risk was transferred via a fixed price contract to a third party supplier.
Dr Maguire indicated that savings could also be achieved - and police officers freed to undertake front line policing duties - if the PSNI contracted out its responsibility for providing prisoner escort and court custody arrangements for about 7,000 prisoners each year.
In addition, the report identified inconsistency between the four prisoner escort and court custody service providers in relation to some practices such as the handcuffing of prisoners.
As a result, Inspectors have recommended that a full market test of the Northern Ireland Prison Service Prison Escort and Court Custody Service and the service provided by the PSNI should be undertaken, in order to achieve continued value for money and consistency of service and performance.
“While this report has identified a number of areas where improvements can be made in how these services are delivered, Inspectors found that in the main, prisoners were treated in a safe and humane manner and the service in general, met the needs of the court system and was operating to an acceptable standard,” said Dr Maguire.
The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice welcomed the use of video-links between Northern Ireland’s prisons and courts to conduct about 60% of all court hearings. As a result, the report suggested that assigning a court on a full-time basis to video-linked hearings would reduce the number of people being transported to and from court; minimise the number of prisoners held in court custody; and cut the costs involved in both escort and court custody duties.
In conclusion, Dr Maguire indicated Inspectors had also urged the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service to work to ensure the standard of court custody facilities currently available in Northern Ireland were consistent.
This was particularly important in relation to the provision of disabled access and secure vehicle docks for vehicles involved in the transportation of prisoners as standards across Northern Ireland had been found to vary considerably.