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.
The deputy’s allegations included:
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.
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.
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.
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.