Body scanners similar to those used in airports are to be trialled at a Northern Ireland prison next month in a bid to find an alternative to full body searches.

The Millimetre Wave equipment will be tested at Magilligan Prison in Co Londonderry on a three-month pilot scheme.

Republican prisoners in the region’s high security prison – Maghaberry in Co Antrim – are engaged in a long-running protest campaign to have so-called strip searches replaced.

The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) had committed itself to finding an alternative to the body searches in the wake of an independent report, but the move toward installing the scanners has been hit by delays.

One month after the technology is installed at Magilligan, the new method of detecting contraband items will also be trialled at Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre in south Belfast.

NIPS Director General Sue McAllister, who announced the roll out of the pilot schemes, said a range of technological options as a possible alternative to full body searching were examined.

“Earlier in the year the (Justice) Minister (David Ford) announced that we were planning to take two pilot schemes forward, and I can now announce that these trials are to begin,” she said.

“A pilot scheme at Magilligan Prison will commence following the installation of equipment and staff training, which are planned for late September. A second pilot scheme at Hydebank Wood will commence in mid October.”

Mr Ford welcomed the introduction of the search technology.

“Unfortunately, a number of practical and logistical matters have taken longer to resolve than was originally anticipated,” he said.

“However, NIPS is now in a position to confirm that the first of these two pilots will commence next month.

“It is important to recognise that progress cannot be made at the expense of prison security and the pilots will test whether the technology can offer the same, or even enhanced, safeguards as those provided through the current procedure of full body searching.

“Full body searching is not ideal, whether for prison officers or prisoners.”

The minister said the move marked another step in the drive to modernise the Prison Service.