Published Monday, 26 November 2012
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Under a review published earlier this year, Magilligan was facing closure in 2018 and a medium security prison built close to Maghaberry.
But speaking to the Stormont Assembly on Monday, David Ford said there was a "convincing case" for retaining Magilligan Prison in the north west.
"Over coming months I believe that the focus for debate on the future of Magilligan needs to shift away from whether it should be decommissioned or not towards actively exploring how we can make it work better in terms of improving the rehabilitation of prisoners," he said.
I am now inclined towards retaining a prison at the Magilligan site, subject to evidence being provided that issues around rehabilitation and family links can be addressed.
Elsewhere, Minister Ford said he would proceed with the proposal to reconfigure Co Antrim's Maghaberry into three mini prisons, which would house remand prisoners, low to medium security prisoners, and those prisoners requiring high security.
"Not only will this create operational efficiencies, but it will also allow Northern Ireland Prison Service to deliver better tailored regimes to specific groups of prisoners within Maghaberry, and will help to underpin and reinforce work to rehabilitate offenders," he explained.
Remand prisoners at Maghaberry who are awaiting trial and those convicted - but posing a low or medium risk - will be fully separated from inmates presenting the greatest danger, like dissident republicans.
An independent report last year labelled parts of the Prison Service as ineffective and highlighted challenges posed by paramilitary inmates, already held in separate wings, and the rising general prison population.
There have been a number of prisoner suicides in the last few years and repeated calls for mental health reform in prisons.
Mr Ford said: "There is a need to manage the difficult transition between prison and community, particularly for those prisoners who have received long sentences, if we are to achieve effective rehabilitation and reduce the risk of reoffending."
He intends to redevelop a prisoner assessment unit, located on the Crumlin Road, as a centre for prisoners approaching the end of their sentence.
"This will allow prisoners to benefit from being located within the community and able to access employment opportunities whilst providing appropriate support and supervision," he said.
Maghaberry officials have opened a new building housing 160 extra inmates.
Mr Ford said good progress was being made on a new 240-cell accommodation block.
Twenty-two dissident republicans ended a dirty protest at Maghaberry linked to strip searching after the prison authorities began testing an electronic scanner as an alternative.
Members of other dissident groups in the prison remain on protest.