Unacceptable management failures in the North's prisons mean they deliver an ineffective service despite having more staff than inmates, a damning report has found.
An inspection of corporate governance and working practices in the region's three facilities exposed a shocking litany of debilitating "deep-seated" problems that is preventing the development of a modern, efficient system.
The devastating assessment by the Criminal Justice Inspection (CJINI) is the latest blow to the beleaguered Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) which has been reeling from a series of critical reports on prisoner care. The CJINI found that of 1,300 recommendations made in those previous reports, 600 remained outstanding.
Past investigations into a number of deaths in custody exposed failings in the observation of vulnerable inmates, while in the last two months three prisoners have been wrongly released, including an accused rapist.
The high security Maghaberry prison in Co Antrim has been ranked as one of the worst performing in the UK.
All this is despite the fact there are almost 1,900 uniformed officers and 400 support staff for the North's 1,500 prison population.
This 1.14 staff-to-prisoner ratio is far in excess of the 0.47 ratio in England and Wales. Officers in the region are also paid a third more than their counterparts across the Irish sea.
Partly as a consequence, money spent keeping prisoners is also comparatively much higher, with the cost per prisoner place in the region approaching £78,000 (€92,105) a year in contrast to the £45,000 (€53,137) in England and Wales.
With the North's jails only four fifths full, the actual cost per individual prisoner is almost £95,000 (€112,179). The NIPS's annual operating budget is around £137m (€161.74), of which £90m (€106.25m) is spent on staff costs.
Chief inspector with the CJINI Dr Michael Maguire, who produced the report, said major changes were needed within the service.
He noted that prisons had been left out of the wide-reaching peace process reforms of the criminal justice system, which among other things led to the creation of a new police service.
As a result, the system was effectively still operating as it had done during the Troubles, when the focus was more on security than on rehabilitation.
"It has been unable to deliver better outcomes for prisoners in terms of time out of cell, access to work, education and other purposeful activity, or to address the need for more constructive engagement between prison officers and prisoners, which can be critical in helping to reduce re-offending and make communities safer," he said.
As well as Maghaberry, the NIPS operates the lower security prison at Magilligan in Co Derry and Hydebank Wood in south Belfast which accommodates young offenders and women prisoners.
Current Prison Service director Robin Masefield is retiring at the end of the year, but a successor has yet to be selected.
The issues flagged up in the report include:
:: On paper the NIPS meets many of its stated targets. The CJINI said this did not tally with a service consistently criticised by inspectors and was because the goals were not challenging enough and not targeted at making the changes needed;
:: Management often pre-occupied with issues relating to dissident republican prisoners, who only account for 4% of the overall prison population;
:: Unhealthy relationship between governors and management. This is in part a legacy of the dismissal of Maghaberry's governor in the wake of a prisoner suicide in 2008;
:: Disproportionate influence exerted by officers' representative body the Prison Officers Association (POA). Inspectors found it held an effective "veto on change" and consistently resisted management efforts to reform system. Weak management sees the POA prevail in almost every dispute, with many disciplinary actions against officers overturned. Acknowledged that POA insist it has a legitimate right to act on members' behalf;
:: Traditional shift patterns mean staff are not deployed effectively. Recommended shifts would result in each officer working 240 days, with two or three 3/4-day weekends and 96 rest days. At Maghaberry, officers do 207 work days, with six 4-day weekends and 129 rest days;
:: High levels of sick absence delivers a further blow to staffing levels. At a total cost of £4.6m (€5.43m), officers take an average of 12.7 days a year, while in Hydebank Wood staff take 17.5 days;
:: When you add additional time off for medical appointments, special leave and other reasons, the NIPS effectively loses the man hours of 214 staff a year;
:: Tolerance of poorly performing prison staff and inability to discipline them. Noted that as a result of the Troubles, officers tend to live close to each other and socialise together and were therefore reluctant to punish colleagues;
:: Another consequence of the conflict meant most officers saw the main function of prison as security, and real engagement with prisoners remained minimal. It noted that there had been little turnover in staff in recent years and there had been no external recruitment on main grade officers since 1994;
:: Many officers were critical of benefits given to prisoners, such as Sky TV, and viewed with contempt staff whose job was to improve and educate inmates. In many instances, resettlement officers and psychologists were branded "fluffies" or "do gooders";
:: Prevalence of local agreements struck by POA and management in separate facilities which resulted in inconsistent service delivery and prevented reform;
:: Bunker mentality among staff due to the number of critical reports;
:: Inconsistencies in recording assaults on prisoners;
:: Inspectors stressed that many staff members do a good job. Dr Maguire said of the 20 or so inspections carried out since 2004 only one - this year at Magilligan - had not identified deepseated problems.
Noting the number of outstanding recommendations, Dr Maguire said he was not making any further specific strategic or operational ones.
"The Prison Service has at it disposal 1,883 uniformed grade officers and almost 400 civilian grade staff members," he said.
"Yet, there are many occasions when local working practices create insufficient staffing levels to deliver an effective service, which has exposed management to reliance on the 'goodwill' of staff to make the prison work.
"Accountability is related to performance management. Unfortunately, we found little history or culture of accountability within the Northern Ireland Prison Service. As the organisation seeks to transform itself into a modern, efficient prison service, strengthened corporate and individual accountability needs to become a reality."
He added: "It is only by addressing the issues raised in this report the Northern Ireland Prison Service will be able to progress operational issues and support pro-active management to deliver meaningful change.
"This means dealing with weak management processes and the current industrial relations climate. It will involve addressing issues of leadership and accountability.
"It will require the development of a more progressive culture and working practices which will not be easy, but are necessary steps that must be taken to move the service forward."