Prison whistleblower shows that protected disclosures are everything but for prison officers

It is unlikely that the Inspector of Prisons will be in a position to declare anything more than that the allegations have at least some prima facie evidence. Picture: Charles O’Rear/CORBIS

It is no wonder that a prison officer used a sworn affidavit to make his claims about the handling of deaths in custody, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford

The claims of malpractice made by a prison officer published in the Irish Examiner over the last two days require serious consideration.

This man is alleging that covert surveillance was carried out within the prison service without the attendant legal requirements. He claims that conversations between solicitors and prisoners were monitored, that private cars and prison service vehicles had tracking devices fitted in a covert manner. And he claims that much, if not all, of this was carried out by a rivate detective agency.

In the Dáil yesterday, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan announced that he was asking the Inspector of Prisons, Patricia Gilheaney, to conduct a preliminary inquiry into the allegations about covert surveillance.

Ms Gilheaney may have another matter to include in her examination, one that is close to her own office. This concerns contacts the prison officer had with her predecessor, the late Judge Michael Reilly, over a number of years.

Today, the Irish Examiner publishes the prison officer’s claims that deaths in custody have not been handled properly. All of these claims are contend in the sworn affidavit furnished as part of an industrial dispute this man is engaged in with his employer.

Frequently over the years, Judge Reilly raised concerns about the handling of deaths in custody.

In August, the Irish Examiner’s Joe Leogue revealed that, in two thirds of the cases examined in Inspector of Prisons reports between 2012-2018, there had been shortcomings identified in investigations.

The Irish Examiner report said: “In his 2013/14 annual report, the late Judge Michael Reilly noted how one prison officer said that, in training, staff are told when it comes to report writing they are to ‘keep it short and cover your arse’.

“Last March, Judge Reilly’s successor, Helen Casey, published a report on the death of Prisoner A on January 3, 2017, in Cork Prison.

“Ms Casey’s review of CCTV footage found that on the night he died, Prisoner A — a 52-year-old married father serving a six-month term — was left unchecked for more than the standard 15 minutes on six occasions, including one period that lasted one hour and 42 minutes.

“The records, however, stated that he was checked every 15 minutes.

“Ms Casey noted that the records provided to her by Cork Prison ‘are misleading in content’ and that she would have accepted that staff had complied with protocol ‘but for the CCTV footage viewed’.”

That is the background against which the prison officer has revealed his concerns about deaths in custody.

He claims that he met Judge Reilly on a number of occasions to discuss his concerns. The last alleged meeting occurred a few months before Judge Reilly’s death in November 2016.

In all likelihood, Judge Reilly must have recorded the fact and the content of the meetings in his notes. In the ordinary course of events, any such notes would be retrievable in the inspector’s office.

These are issues that the current Inspector of Prisons could unearth with a minimum of fuss.

Another element of the allegations could also be stood up in a preliminary form at least.

A cursory examination of the internal accounts of the Irish Prison Service should establish if a private detective agency has been retained and for what purpose.

For instance, the allegations would involve a considerable number of man (or woman) hours being dedicated to monitoring devices. That does not come cheap. If a large sum of money was paid out to any agency, it should be easy to establish whether the fees are accountable.

The request by the Justice Minister for the Inspector of Prisons to investigate these matters is curious. The inspector has limited powers. This was demonstrated in the years that Judge Reilly occupied the office, in that there was no force of authority to ensure his recommendations were followed, or his concerns addressed.

As such, it is unlikely that the inspector will be in a position to declare anything more than that the allegations have at least some prima facia evidence. For instance, a central feature of the prison officer’s claims is the retention of a private investigation company. The Inspector has no powers to compel a private citizen to answer questions or produce any documentation.

The format in which the allegations were made is telling in this respect. The Irish Examiner understands that the prison officer was advised within the prison service that the route he should take was to make a protected disclosure.

He rejected this idea on the basis that he had no confidence that a protected disclosure would be dealt with thoroughly or with any urgency.

His concern is understandable. Just last week, another prison officer gave evidence in private to the Public Accounts Committee about what he alleges was unfair treatment after he made a protected disclosure.

The prison service initially refused to classify his claims as a disclosure. Judge William Early upheld this man’s appeal on the matter.

In another entirely separate case last year, a protected disclosure was made about how a complaint of sexual harassment was handled, including the award of a financial settlement to a prison service employee.

That disclosure was made in September last year but nothing was done about it until details were published in the Irish Examiner two months later.

The matter was then handed to solicitors McCann Fitzgerald to investigate. Now, nearly a year later, the investigation is reportedly completed but no final report on the matter has yet been written.

With a record like that for handling protected disclosures, is it any wonder that this prison officer used the legal mechanism of a sworn affidavit to make his claims?

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