Minister expresses ‘grave concern’ over prison deaths in internal correspondence

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has expressed “grave concern” at the handling of deaths in prisons, according to internal prison service correspondence seen by the Irish Examiner.

The minister’s concern followed a recent inquest in Cork which heard that CCTV footage showed that a written record of monitoring a vulnerable prisoner in the hours before his death was completely false.

David Blackwell, who died in Cork prison on January 2, 2017, was supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes on the evening that he died. The observation log recorded that the checks were done, but the CCTV footage subsequently examined showed that there were large gaps between checks.

The inquest was told that disciplinary action has been taken as a result.

The case was one of a number highlighted by the Inspector of Prisons in recent years that showed a failure to monitor vulnerable prisoners and discrepancies in the records following a death.

The director general of the Irish Prison Service, Caron McCaffrey, has sent an email warning staff of their responsibilities for monitoring vulnerable prisoners in their care.

Ms McCaffrey’s mail acknowledges the cases which have been highlighted where there was a failure to comply with monitoring prisoners as per the regulations.

“Adherence to this policy and the related SOPs [standard operating procedures] is vital to ensure safe custody,” wrote Ms McCaffrey. “Unfortunately, as is evidenced in many of the recent reports by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons with regard to deaths in custody, it is clear that some staff are not adhering to their obligations as set out in the SOPs.

This issue has been raised by the Inspector of Prisons, the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality and most recently by the Minister for Justice and Equality who has expressed to me his grave concern at this issue.

The correspondence was issued last Thursday, a day after this paper made a series of inquiries about deaths in custody to the Irish Prison Service, to which there has been no response.

Ms McCaffrey also pointed out that a failure to adhere to the regulations will now be “deemed to be gross or serious misconduct and, if found guilty of this breach, the normal sanction will be a recommendation for dismissal”.

She said regulations now in place allow for chief officers to check whether monitoring has been properly complied with.

“This will allow prison management to identify non-compliance at an early stage and take action rather than responding to a tragic incident that may have resulted in the loss of life,” she said.

Prison governors are scheduled to meet with all staff in the state’s prisons in the coming days to raise awareness about the rules in relation to monitoring vulnerable prisoners, the mail states.

Last November Mr Flanagan ordered the Inspector of Prisons to conduct an inquiry into a number of allegations made in an affidavit by Assistant Chief Officer David McDonald. Most of these claims centred on illegal monitoring of prison officers.

Mr McDonald also made a number of detailed claims around shortcomings on how deaths in custody were dealt with, but these were not included in the inspector’s report. He said he had been in contact with the former inspector, Judge Michael Reilly, about the matter.

The inspector’s report has been completed and is currently being examined by the Attorney General.

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