Speech by Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan T.D.,

at the Prison Officers’ Association Conference

Radisson Hotel, Co. Sligo

 

2 May 2019

 

President, members of the Prison Officers’ Association National Executive, Branch Representatives, Distinguished Guests, Delegates  - thank you for inviting me to your annual conference here in Sligo.

 

Mr President - Tony Power - congratulations.  I wish you the very best in your new role.  I am sure, that during your time in office, you will represent your members with professionalism and dedication.

 

Because professionalism and dedication are just two of the hallmarks of the officers you represent.

 

I want, at the very outset today, to acknowledge that, on a daily basis, often unseen, across our 12 prisons, prison staff work in roles which are challenging and demanding. I want you to know my Government colleagues and I recognise that, and are very grateful to you for what you do.

 

You work in an organisation, a service which is challenged….. I know that.

 

It doesn’t just have to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all of those who work and live within our prisons.

 

It also faces many operational challenges –

 

challenges relating to rising prison numbers, drugs and contraband, mental illness and of course having to ensure appropriate regime activity for prisoners to assist with rehabilitation.

 

To look at two particular ones though…

 

First of all, I want you to know I share your concern with regard to the increasing numbers in our prisons.  While, it is still important to note that we have relatively low imprisonment rates by international standards, ensuring a safe working environment for you is a key priority for me and the Director General.

 

To ensure we can provide this and ensure the safety and security of prisoners in our custody my Department has been working closely with the Director General and we are taking a number of short and medium term steps to address the issue.

 

I understand for example that plans are advanced for the re-opening of accommodation not currently being used within the system.  Including the re-opening of the Training Unit, I’m told that will provide an additional 140 prison spaces.

 

In addition, I understand an audit of existing accommodation is underway, in order to see where additional spaces can be brought on stream – and I am told this has the potential to provide up to an additional 100 spaces.

 

And of course we have also recently signed a construction contract for a stand-alone female prison in Limerick as well as a new wing to Limerick male prison.  Together, I understand they are expected to provide 130 new spaces.

 

Aside from overcrowding however, I know you are also concerned about the serious challenges posed by drones.

 

They are a threat to prison security.

 

They have the capacity to deliver drugs and other contraband.  Indeed they have done so …. And I want by the way to congratulate the Irish Prison Service and An Garda Síochána for the successful collaboration which recently led to arrests near Castlerea Prison.

 

So please be assured that we do understand the threat, while also asking you to acknowledge that it is both complex and multi-faceted. 

 

In terms of addressing it though, I understand that a working group has been examining a number of technologies and I am pleased to say a potential solution has been identified.  I believe it will shortly be trialled in one prison and if it is successful, I understand consideration will be given to rolling-out it out across the Estate.

 

Another issue I know is of great concern to you is that of assaults on staff.

 

Incidents of violence do occur.  But while the reasons may vary, the fact remains that even one assault on a member of staff is one assault too many. I want you to know that my officials and I take every assault on staff as an affront against the entire prison system.

 

So what can be done?  How can prisoners be deterred from taking such actions? 

 

Well central to the issue of deterrence is the prisoner disciplinary system.

 

We need a system which is fair and transparent with sanctions imposed consistently from prison to prison.  I am therefore pleased to announce that in line with a recommendation contained within the State Claims Agency’s Report on ‘Assaults on Operational Prison Staff by Prisoners’, a full review of the prisoner disciplinary system has begun.

 

This Review will not only consider the ‘day to day’ operation of the system….

 

It will also look at the level and type of sanctions imposed on prisoners who assault staff.

 

I am pleased that your Association has been invited to make a formal submission outlining your concerns and issues, and I want to assure you all that my officials are giving the Review full consideration.

 

Your job is of course very difficult, but it must still be done, day in day out, in a humane and respectful way.

 

Only a prison system with humanity and respect at its core will deliver rehabilitation, and we must always remember that a sentence is supposed, not just to punish, but also to rehabilitate and prepare an offender to reintegrate into a community.

 

This is not a vague aspiration.  It is an approach identified by the Penal Policy Review Group as a core principle.

 

And it is also an approach which incorporates Human Rights.

 

You have a new Director General in your Prison Service of course … Caron McCaffrey.  I would like to congratulate Caron, the first woman to serve in this challenging post, on her appointment and I wish her every success. 

 

But the reason I mentioned Caron at this particular juncture, just after I mentioned Human Rights, is because I know a particular priority for her will be upholding the human rights standards in our prisons.

 

We will be accountable with regard to this of course, and I welcome the fact that, later this year, the CPT will visit Ireland to assess how persons deprived of their liberty are treated.

 

CPT visits and reports are taken very seriously by the Government.  Indeed their criticisms of ‘slopping out’ played a significant part in almost completely eliminating that practice. 

 

So for my part, I look forward to them helping us drive human rights standards, and I know that the IPS will ensure the delegation gets a fair and open opportunity to evaluate how our system is working.

 

Another example of valuable external scrutiny is the Office of the Inspector of Prisons. 

 

The Office has had a positive impact on the prison system in Ireland since its establishment in 2002, and now, since last year, we have, of course, a new Inspector, Ms Patricia Gilheaney.

 

I welcome the Inspector’s vision, drive and commitment to an independent, robust and professional inspection regime which meets international best practice, and I intend that she will have the appropriate frameworks and resources in place to deliver on this commitment. 

 

Robust prison inspection is to be welcomed.  It helps us improve.  But it also shines a light on excellent work.  Recognition, as well as the criticism, is vital for ongoing organisational growth and development.

 

As you know, one of the functions of the Inspector of Prisons is the investigation of deaths in custody.  These reports are very important. 

 

They help the families of the deceased to understand what led to the death,  they highlight policies or procedures which may need to be strengthened or improved, and they also highlight areas where compliance with procedures has not been achieved.  It is vitally important of course, that all standard operating procedures are complied with, especially those regarding the monitoring of prisoners, including carrying out prescribed checks.

 

The Irish Prison Service has recently published a new Policy on the monitoring of prisoners during periods of lock up, and I know that considerable action has been taken by the Director General, to raise awareness with staff regarding their obligations on prisoner monitoring.  I welcome that.

 

Another international pillar to protect the human rights of prisoners is the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture  - OPCAT.

 

This Protocol, which Ireland has signed but not ratified, is in addition and complementary to the United Nations Convention against Torture  - UNCAT - which we have already signed and ratified.  The Protocol is preventative in nature and provides for the establishment of National Preventive Mechanisms that would inspect facilities where a person is held involuntarily.

 

The instrument impacts on a number of sectors but my Department has been tasked with progressing legislation so that it can be ratified.  We have been consulting with a number of key stakeholders and on foot of these consultations, a draft scheme is being prepared.  I intend to circulate it to stakeholders for comments as soon as possible, so that it goes to Government for approval and then to the OPC for formal drafting before the end of this year.

 

Change is a word we hear a lot … transformational change even. 

There is much change underway throughout the other parts of the criminal justice system – in my own Department and An Garda Síochána for instance.

 

And over the years, various entities have called for reform of the governance of the Irish Prison Service ….  

 

In essence these calls have been for an accountable and progressive prison service.  Well in at least part answer to them, my officials are  developing proposals to strengthen governance of the prison system.

 

One of the changes that I favour is reinstituting an Advisory Board for the Prison Service.

 

I want to see a number of sub Committees established.  Each would have a specific role in relation to supporting governance in areas such as audit, risk, organisational culture and HR, and they would, in line with usual practice, report to the Board. 

 

At individual prison level, there would also be new structures to help ensure that, as a publicly funded organisation, the IPS is fully accountable.

 

But while structures are critically important, in the end it is people and how they behave that matters.

 

Given that much of your activity takes place behind closed doors, it is critical that the values which underpin the Service are those of integrity, accountability and openness.  I know many of you personally and I have no doubt that you are motivated by the highest values of public service. 

 

I ask you to continue to embrace and support this drive towards greater openness and accountability.  Indeed your association has played and continues to play a very important role in contributing to and supporting the introduction of many positive initiatives within the Service and I thank you all and commend you for that commitment to delivering excellence.

 

In November 2018, I opened the National Violence Reduction Unit in the Midlands Prison.

 

The Unit marks a significant change in how the Service engages with prisoners who represent the highest risk of violence to staff, to other prisoners and to our communities. 

 

This new approach involves meeting each prisoner's complex needs through improving their psychological health, their wellbeing and their behaviour.  It all takes place in a centre of excellence operated by highly motivated, highly trained and highly competent staff.

 

I am aware that the Prison Officers’ Association played a very significant role in the development of this concept and I want to thank you for that.  I have no doubt that your positive leadership will deliver valuable dividends in making safer custodial environments for offenders and for staff.

 

I am also aware that the prison environment poses other risks to the health and safety of staff and I have listened carefully to what you have had to say in relation to the issue of smoking within prisons.

 

I understand however that an updated Smoking Policy, covering smoking in any form, including all vaping devices and e-cigarettes, was implemented across every prison in 2018.

 

I want to say that I share the view of the Director General that only full compliance with the Smoking Policy is acceptable. Moreover, I am assured that Governors have been directed to vigorously police the Smoking Policy and ensure that violations are subject to appropriate sanctions.

 

As well as creating a safer working environment, I know the Director General is also deeply committed, personally, to strengthening the supports provided to prison staff.

 

The Employee Assistance Programme, peer to peer support and a free confidential counselling service are all essential in your complex and challenging environment and I am glad to learn that the IPS is continuing to work towards introducing the Critical Incident Stress Management model of support for prison personnel. 

 

Very welcome progress has also been made in relation to the provision of Continuous Professional Development to all staff.  Indeed, I had the opportunity to open and the recently refurbished Irish Prison Service College last November.  I see this major investment in training facilities as a very practical demonstration of the Service’s commitment to invest in and support its staff. 

 

I recognise that the safety and wellbeing of both staff and prisoners is best served by maximising the opportunities for structured activities across the prison estate.

 

That is why I am pleased to see that bespoke Regime Management Plans have been developed and are being implemented in each prison.  These plans are of course designed to ensure the optimum assignment of staff resources to support structured activity for prisoners.

 

The Irish Prison Service is also commencing a review of staffing levels in support of essential services such as catering, laundry, waste management and industrial cleaning. 

 

And finally talking of a review of staffing levels, can I also talk about an increase in staffing levels.

 

I am delighted that Prison Officer recruitment is continuing. I know how important appropriate staffing is to your workplace safety so I am delighted that Government has been able to fund the recruitment of 179 Recruit Prison Officers in 2018.  I know too that another 43 have completed initial training this year, while another 48 are in training …. 

 

So that is good news on the numbers coming in, while, for those of you already in, I am glad to announce the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 will see improvements in pay.  This will come about through the significant unwinding of the financial emergency measures legislation that has applied to public servants since 2009.

 

To conclude then, can I once again express my sincere gratitude and that of Government, to you, for your ongoing contribution.

 

You ensure the safe custody of prisoners, the rehabilitation of offenders and safer communities.

 

I would like to wish you well for the remainder of your conference.

 

Thank you.

 

ENDS