Time to end culture of Omerta in Irish prisons and ensure proper oversight before it is too late

Time to end culture of Omerta in Irish prisons and ensure proper oversight before it is too late
In practically every investigation into malpractice in Irish prisons, nobody has been held responsible, apart from the odd slap on a wrist. Picture: Irish Times

Sources at every level within the Irish Prison Service have contacted the Irish Examiner over the years to express concerns, ranging from sexual harassment to malpractice in the investigation of deaths in custody, writes Michael Clifford

On June 11, Fianna Fáil TD Marc McSharry made a number of allegations in the Dáil about malpractice and criminality in our prisons.

All of these involved members of the Irish Prison Service. He revealed that “tens of prison staff from all over the country came to me unsolicited to share their concerns about what is going on”.

He also referenced the culture in which, he said, these matters arose.

A small number of staff at various levels, including senior ranks, are nurturing and facilitating a culture of Omerta — what goes on in the Prison Service stays in the Prison Service.

The deputy’s allegations included:

  • “That victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault have been bought off and pressurised into accepting money instead of going through due process with the gardaí. It has been alleged to be that career blocking has been taken against those who don’t play ball”
  • “Misappropriation of State funds where it is alleged a governor channelled funds and materials owned by the State to their favourite sports clubs, organisations and charities… having homes decked out with prison materials from workshops put in by staff on duty for the Prison Service at the behest of the governor in question”
  • “Mess committees (for catering in the prison) and tuck shops, profits being flagrantly used for trips abroad… including a significant one (costing) tens of thousands to Savannah and New York”
  • “A store employee selling uniforms and equipment online and when found out was allowed to resign”

The allegations were all made under parliamentary privilege. Some are, or were, the subject of various inquiries. Others remain to be tested.

As reported in the Irish Examiner today, two separate inquiries into misappropriation of funds and services by senior staff members are now underway within the prison service.

Separately, the Irish Examiner has, over the last two years, published a number of stories about malpractice, and even criminality within the service.

These included:

  • A case of sexual harassment which resulted in a six-figure payout by the State, but for which there were no repercussions for the culprit. This was investigated by William Fry Solicitors — the investigation took nearly a year and no outcome was ever publicised, nor were there any repercussions for anybody involved
  • Allegations by a whistleblower in the service of malpractice in appointments. This culminated in an award of €30,000 from the Workplace Relations Commission to the whistleblower for suffering repercussions for making his disclosure
  • A complaint by a senior staff member against management in HQ, whom he accused of targeting him and blocking his career advancement
  • The removal from their posts of three senior managers in Portlaoise Prison following the walkout of a number of officers from a high-security unit in May 2018. The three managers were not subjected to any disciplinary inquiry, and two of them were reinstated later. The third manager is taking legal action against the Prison Service over her treatment. None of the officers who walked off the job were subjected to disciplinary actions
  • Repeated instances of malpractice in the investigation of deaths in custody and the falsification of records of checking on vulnerable prisoners
  • Allegations of surveillance of large groups of prison officers by a private security firm paid for by IPS. Some of this activity was alleged to have been carried out on officers’ private vehicles
  • Allegations that listening devices were placed in visitor areas where conversations between prisoners and their solicitors were also monitored. The content of the surveillance was allegedly handed over to the gardaí who would have been aware that it was obtained illegally

The latter allegations about surveillance were examined by the Inspector of Prisons after Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan ordered an inquiry last November. Mr Flanagan stated last month that he is “concerned” at the contents of the inspector’s report.

He referred the matter to the Attorney General’s office, but it has since been returned to the department with suggestions. According to the Department of Justice, the report is now being finalised for publication.

It is expected that much of the report will be redacted for legal reasons. It remains to be seen what action the minister will take on foot of it and whether any case of prosecution will be taken.

Most of the other incidents outlined above have been subjected to investigation of one sort or another. How rigorous these investigations have been is a matter of conjecture. But in practically every case, nobody has been held responsible, apart from the odd slap on a wrist.

Sources at every level within the IPS have contacted the Irish Examiner over the last two years to express various concerns. A theme running through all the experiences and observations of these sources is that the imperative within the service is to avoid scandal and controversy.

Time to end culture of Omerta in Irish prisons and ensure proper oversight before it is too late

Somebody dies in custody? Ensure there is no scandal or controversy around the circumstances in which the death occurred.

A group of officers walk off the job in a unit containing highly dangerous prisoners with the potential for violence? The imperative is to avoid any conflict with the prison officers’ union, which might result in further headaches.

An old issue involving allegations of sexual harassment by a senior officer raises its head? Get rid of it, go through the motions and file away the results of any investigation with a minimum of fuss.

Two examples illustrate this approach. The incident about sexual harassment and a financial settlement was brought to the attention of the Department of Justice in September 2017.

Nothing was done for nearly two months until the story was published in the Irish Examiner. A legal firm was then appointed to investigate, but it took nearly 12 months to complete what should have been a straightforward investigation.

Last November, the Minister for Justice ordered an “urgent” inquiry into alleged surveillance on the day the Irish Examiner published the story.

He acknowledged in the Dáil he was aware of the allegations prior to the publication. Why then hadn’t he acted, if the matter was so urgent? It would appear that action is effected only when issues leak into the public domain where controversy or scandal might lurk.

Priorities in this regard were evident in a circular sent by director general of the IPS Caron McCaffery to all staff on the issue of deaths in custody last April. The circular was issued in the wake of controversies over deaths in which vulnerable prisoners had not been monitored as per regulation.

At one point of the circular, Ms McCaffrey wrote: “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 regarding this issue.”

So the real problem with the failure to monitor vulnerable prisoners is that these big cheeses, and particularly the minister, were upset. One would have thought that a circular of this nature should have concerned itself entirely with duty of care within the prison environment.

The circular gave an insight into a priority in IPS HQ to ensure the minister is not discommoded. Coincidentally or not, most of those in management in Longford never worked in a prison, which is something perhaps the minister should concern himself with.

In his Dáil address a fortnight ago, Deputy McSharry called for a Gsoc-style inspectorate with statutory powers to oversee the prison service.

Fianna Fáil TD Marc McSharry
Fianna Fáil TD Marc McSharry

As things stand, there is no oversight body for the service apart from the Department of Justice. This is precisely the structure that was in place for An Garda Síochána prior to the setting up of Gsoc and the Garda Inspectorate in 2007.

Those moves came on foot of the Morris Tribunal which reported on extensive Garda corruption and malpractice in Donegal.

The real issue bedevilling the State’s prisons now is whether it will take the eruption of a major scandal before the Government acknowledges that proper oversight is urgently required.

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