N.I. prison officers eager for redundancy package

Ninety-nine percent of Northern Ireland's prison officers eligible for a voluntary redundancy package have expressed an interest in it.

The scheme was launched last month targeting the highest paid members of staff aged over 50 with nearly all the 650 in this category responding.

There are 1,800 prison officers in the North. The prison service hopes 540 will volunteer to retire early to make way for new recruits on lower salaries.

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The sums on offer to those who retired are much lower than the packages for police officers under the Patten redundancy scheme, which was brought in to help more Catholics join the police service.

In recent years the prison service in the North of Ireland has been severely criticized in several reports, leading to calls for reform including changes in uniforms and symbols. Last month First Minister Peter Robinson said he would force an early election if the crown were taken off the badge, or HMP (Her Majesty's Prison) were excluded from the official names of prisons.

Payments for members of staff who qualify for the new redundancy package will depend on length of service.

The most experienced officers will receive a lump sum of more than £55,000. They will also receive a number of enhanced payments equivalent to 21 month's salary, bringing the total to just over £120,000, plus an annual pension of £18,500.

The prison service has said the redundancy scheme is essential for a new beginning. The annual cost of keeping a prisoner in jail in the North is £95,000, which is more than double the cost than in England.

The prison officers who have expressed an interest in the severance package will each receive details of how much their package is worth early next month.

They will then have four weeks to decide whether to accept it or not.