It is now “crystal clear” to prison staff and managers that the failure to monitor vulnerable inmates will result in dismissal, the head of the Irish Prison Service has said.
IPS director general, Caron McCaffrey, was commenting over the weekend, on the back of an inquest in Cork last month and a related report, of the Inspector of Prisons, into the death of an inmate in Cork Prison.
David Blackwell, aged 52, who had a history of psychiatric illness and substance abuse, died of heart failure in the Vulnerable Persons’ Unit of Cork Prison, in January 2017.
Those in the unit should be checked every 15 minutes. While initial prison records indicated that the checks had been done on Mr Blackwell, CCTV footage showed otherwise. A report by the acting inspector of prisons found that the CCTV footage was “incorrect and misleading” and detailed gaps in monitoring of 102 minutes, 97 minutes, and 51 minutes.
Last August, the Irish Examiner published an analysis of reports by the inspector of prisons, which showed that two-thirds of deaths of vulnerable persons since 2012 produced concerns about misleading or inaccurate record-keeping by prison staff.
In an email sent out after the Cork inquest, Ms McCaffrey said Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan had expressed to her “his grave concern at this issue”.
Speaking to media at the weekend, Ms McCaffrey said she had made it “crystal clear” to prison officers, and governors, that dismissal would result from failing to check on vulnerable inmates every 15 minutes, unless there were good reasons why they could not do so.
She said: “I’ve made it very, very clear to our management and very, very clear to our staff that where staff, without good reason, don’t perform their duties, in my view that is gross misconduct and will result in dismissal.”
The IPS boss said that, “at the moment, discretion lies with the prison governor”, in terms of implementing a disciplinary sanction.
She said policies have been changed: “Previously, our prison management could only view a 20-minute piece of footage of night duty to ensure that staff are doing their job. We have removed and amended our CCTV policy, so our staff can now view the full CCTV footage of night guard duties.”
She said they had introduced a night log for staff “to ensure they contemporaneously note the issues that arise on any given night to ensure that where there is good reason for not having done those checks — and, as I said, operational issues absolutely do arise during an evening — that they are properly and appropriately recorded at the time”.
Some 250 prisoners have “severe and enduring mental illness”, and 30 of them require admission to the Central Mental Hospital, at any one time, the director general of the Irish Prison Service has said.
Caron McCaffrey said the country’s sole forensic mental health facility operates a waiting list for admissions, and that prison chiefs only have access to a “limited” number of beds there.
“There are significant issues in our prisons generally, in relation to mental illness,” she said.
She said this included schizophrenia: “Of those 250, we could have between 20 and 30 people who have been deemed to require admission to the Central Mental Hospital.”
She said the National Forensic Mental Health Service operated a waiting list for admission to the CMH.
“We have access to a limited number of beds,” she said. “The reality is that not everyone on the waiting list will get access to the Central Mental Hospital.”
Ms McCaffrey said the Government was investing in a new Central Mental Hospital: “We have been engaging directly with the CMH, in relation to increasing the numbers of beds available to the prison service.
“When the new hospital opens, in Portrane in 2020, we do expect to see an increase in the number of beds available to prisoners.”
Last March, the reports of prison visiting committees for Mountjoy, Cork, Limerick, Wheatfield, and Cloverhill, raised concerns about mental illness among prisoners.
In a report last October, the Irish Penal Reform Trust said increasing numbers of prisoners with severe mental illness were on the CMH waiting list. It said that while there were psychiatric referral units in all Dublin prisons, in Portlaoise and in Midlands, there were none in Cork, Limerick, or Castlerea. It said there were fewer psychologists for prisoners now than three years ago, but noted that the IPS had recruited some recently.
The IPRT estimated that there were 323 prisoners, out of 4,000, with a severe mental illness.
It said only two prisons (Mountjoy and Cloverhill) had high-support units for mentally ill prisoners, even though an inquest jury in 2016 called for one in every prison.