Some of what emerged in a damning report on surveillance in our prisons wouldn’t be out of place in a TV crime drama, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford
The report on surveillance in prisons published yesterday presents a colourful yet alarming picture of life in the State’s detention centres. Some of what has emerged would easily find a home in a TV crime drama. But this is real life and what is at issue is suspected illegal activity by prison service employees and the violation of the rights of more employees. There is also the matter — left largely untouched in the report — as to what exactly members of An Garda Síochána knew about this illegal activity at the time.
Another concern involves prisoners’ rights, specifically the monitoring of their conversations. Despite what most people might want to believe, prisoners retain rights which is as it should be in a civilised society. Entirely separately, the report corroborates an allegation that there were no proper procedures around investigating deaths in custody in Irish prisons. This is an issue that has been repeatedly highlighted by inspectors and prisoners’ rights groups to little avail.
This report by the Inspector of Prisons Patricia Gilheaney was ordered by the Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan last November following the publication of the allegations in the Irish Examiner.
The allegations were contained in an affidavit filed by Assistant Chief Officer David McDonald who is in dispute with the prison service. He is a member of the Operational Support Group (OSG), the unit charged with stopping the flow of contraband into prisons. Mr McDonald admitted his own involvement in many of the allegations he was making but says he was acting under orders.
The report details evidence to corroborate his allegations that covert surveillance of prison officers was carried out by the OSG. It supports his allegation that listening devices were placed in areas where prisoners met visitors.
There is also some evidence, according to the report, of an operation which included “a van containing drugs and telephones entering the Midlands prison and (being) seized by the OSG and the individuals in the van were arrested”. This amounted to a sting operation but involved the taking of huge risks and questionable legality.
Invoices to pay private investigation firms a total of €29,000 for services in covert surveillance were uncovered.
Ms Gilheaney’s report includes a file detailing extensive movements of a prominent prison officer who was targeted by the OSG, as Mr McDonald had alleged. The file was compiled from material including the placing of a tracker device on this prison officer’s private vehicle.
Another file uncovered by the inspector contained “prison service credit union documents regarding certain staff members”. This would infer that somebody in the OSG was obtaining — illegally — details of the private financial affairs of certain officers.
The conclusion of the report is that: “The evidence does suggest that in an effort to contain the flow of contraband into IPS (Irish Prison Service) facilities, a small number of personnel within the OSG acted in a unilateral manner which was beyond the original remit of the OSG, that does not appear to have followed any standard procedural or operational guidelines and which fell outside of acceptable practice.
Some of the material uncovered suggests illegal activity and was referred by the Inspector to An Garda Síochána and the Data Protection Commissioner for investigation.
Ms Gilheaney does state there were conflicts in various testimonies given to her. These included who had knowledge of the activity. She heard testimony that HQ in the IPS was aware of what was going on and she heard testimony from those in HQ at the time that they hadn’t a clue what was going on.
This despite the issuing of invoices to private investigation firms for services that were unspecified. At its most benign, the failure to know what exactly money was being spent on would suggest serious carelessness.
An inquiry with proper powers would be in a better position to determine who knew what and when, but Ms Gilheaney, understandably, couldn’t go further than saying there were conflicts in this regard.
The ultimate outcome is that those who wish to minimise what occurred can simply point to a few officers who effectively took the law into their own hands. Whether or not that would stand up to detailed scrutiny is another matter.
Take for instance the discovery of the file detailing extensive surveillance of the prominent officer. The inspector notes that “the report (detailing the targeted officer’s movements) appears to indicate a level of engagement between the author of the report and members of An Garda Síochána in the sharing of information”.
This file was referred to An Garda Síochána for investigation. So we have the guards investigating, among other things, whether the guards had knowledge that members of the prison service were involved in illegal surveillance.
If there was knowledge of the surveillance within An Garda Síochána how far up the chain of command did it go? The target was a prominent member of the prison service.
In a different matter, we know now that an innocuous traffic incident involving a TD — Mick Wallace — was conveyed all the way to the commissioner. Would the surveillance of a prominent prison officer be passed up the line? If so, how could the gardaí credibly investigate anything to do with illegal surveillance within the prison service?
The narrative of a few officers gone rogue fits perfectly into the apparent driving ethic within the prison service. Keep a lid on controversies. Do nothing that might embarrass the political masters. Ensure that eyes are averted from anything unsavoury, whether it be the treatment of deaths in custody or any illegal activity.
One only has to look at how the publication of this report has been handled to observe the way in which things are done. The minister had possession of the report in early March and had received the nod from the attorney general to publish by the end of April.
Yet despite categorising the report as “urgent”, he held back publishing until the day of the Cabinet’s last meeting before the summer break. The Dáil has safety broken up. Everybody’s minds are on the weather and holidays. There is nothing to see here. Please move on.
The minister has promised greater oversight of the Irish Prison Service. Unless such oversight has real teeth — and don’t hold your breath — there is no reason to believe that things are any different today.