Quakers lose prison visitors contract
A RECRUITMENT company managed by former NI21 chairwoman Tina McKenzie is to take over the running of a family visitors' centre at Maghaberry prison which had previously been run by the Quakers community.
The Quakers have provided services to the families of prisoners for decades through the darkest years of the Northern Ireland's Troubles including the period covering the republican hunger strikes and tense prison protests.
The Christian movement maintained the visitors' centre at Maghaberry for 26 years and, despite inspection reports condemning the jail as being among the worst in Europe, the family services provided by the Quakers has been praised by successive prison inspectors.
However, earlier this month People Plus NI took over the running of visitor and family facilities at the top security jail.
The Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO), which ran similar facilities at Hydebank and Magilligan prisons for more than 40 years, also lost its contract to People Plus.
People Plus provides training for the 'Steps 2 Success' back to work programme on behalf of the Department for Employment and Learning.
Ms McKenzie, who failed to be elected after standing as a candidate for Basil McCrea's NI21 in the local council and European earlier this year, is managing director of the company that will now provide trainees to run the prison centres that provide support facilities for the partners and children of inmates.
Her father is former IRA man Harry Fitzsimons who spent years in Long Kesh and the Maze. Ms McKenzie, who resigned from the party executive on the night of the elections, has previously spoken of her memories of the prison regime and visiting her father saying how she thought it was "normal" to go on prison visits with her family.
A spokeswoman for the Quaker community said they were "saddened that after nearly 44 years of providing services at prison visitor centres, we are no longer able to be involved in the work at Maghaberry.
"It is well recognised that maintaining family bonds during imprisonment has a real impact on quality of life for all involved, and helps with rehabilitation and to cut re-offending.
"But it can be challenging - our goal was to provide practical and emotional support in a safe, welcoming environment where all visitors were met with dignity and respect.
"Services included childcare, transport, refreshments, counselling, information and advice, all to make it easier for family members to keep visiting prison.
"Our priority remains the needs of these families and visitors. In our view, this needs to underpin the future of these services, both for the new provider and the Prison Service as commissioners of these services," she said.
"Quaker Service will continue supporting isolated prisoners, vulnerable families and young people through our other projects”.
NIACRO Chief Executive Olwen Lyner said they were "obviously saddened" that the Visitor Centres will no longer be part of the NIACRO family of services.
"We do have concerns at the speed and management of the transfer arrangements with regard to staff and assets and believe there are lessons to be learned in ensuring the smooth transfer of such contracts for the future," a spokesman said.
"Our experience of delivering this service for several decades has proven to us that it is a critical service for the families and friends of people in custody, and that has been highlighted in several prison inspection reports over the years".
The prison service have defended the removal of the contract from the Quakers and NIACRO saying the contract was awarded "through an open and transparent procurement competition".
People Plus NI declined to comment.