The duty of care to officers seems a foggy concept to the Irish Prison Service

The Prison Officers Association now has to decide if it is safe for its members to work as civilians in State-sponsored jails, writes John Cuffe.

Prison officers wear the same type of uniform the gardaí wear. That’s where the similarity ends and that is not a problem.

Each service performs vastly different roles but they do share a common danger — assault in the performance of their duty. As a criminologist and sociologist, I favour a progressive penal system. It makes sense. However, safety must be married into the system. The policeman, in the performance of his/her duty, wears a stab vest, has pepper spray, and a retractable baton.

Common sense sees those pieces of equipment as necessary. That they are rarely deployed is a testament to the gardaí. Essentially, they are seen as defensive support. Contrast the prison officer, who has none of this personal protection equipment. I speak from 30 years’ experience as a senior prison officer here. I speak from having been attacked with a jug of scalding water laced with sugar to ensure it stuck to my face. I speak from experience where I was attacked on prison property with a syringe-wielding young man out on a 10-year suspended prison sentence.

In all cases, I had nothing to protect myself from serious injury other than a rolled-up newspaper, ironically carried in the baton pocket sewn into my uniform trousers for a baton I wasn’t permitted to carry. I saw colleagues have teeth knocked down their throat, another colleague received more than 70 stitches when a prisoner tried to slice his neck open. Now the situation regarding staff assaults as currently stated by the Irish Prison Service (IPS) and the POA are diametrically polar opposites. And this is a worry.

The problems seem rooted in what exactly is the “Prison Service”. It may surprise people to see that the interim Prisons Board was only set up in 1997. It became the IPS in 2001. The point of main interest here is that the Prison Service is a non-statutory body. Ironically, the Office of Prison Inspector is set up statutorily. Boiled down this means that the prison officers are civilians. They, unlike the army, navy, and police, take no oath of allegiance to the State that one of them died for — the late Brian Stack.

It follows then that as civilians they are treated by the law similar to private security companies. That means no permission to carry a baton or have pepper spray as a protection. Ironically again, many private security men wear stab vests. Taking this situation further, in the event of government policy changing, the IPS could be privatised at the stroke of a pen.

Prisoners on sentence are entitled to generous remission, ranging from one quarter to almost a half of time knocked off in enhanced regimes. If a prisoner is constantly disruptive a governor could remove part of their remission. This was an effective method. Due to a combination of IPS attitude and overcrowding, loss of remission was removed from governors. Staff have been demoralised by this. Now the minister is going to review this. Really? Review something that is already there but obviously removed by headquarters diktat.

The bottom line is simple. As a criminologist with also 30 years’ experience behind me, we jail far too many people. We have a one-size-fits-all system and 14 jails with a jigsaw policy — parts moved around until forced together.

Now, Michael Donnellan, the director general of the Irish Prison Service, and his cadre of civil servants wish to disperse troublesome prisoners amongst the existing jails. The staff on the floor want a single jail, Portlaoise, to house the troublemakers. Alas, the staff have no say.

That, folks, is how the IPS works. Good men and women burn out on the front line as civil servants based in Longford and Dublin, decide via “expert bodies” what’s best for the officers and prisoners. The old chestnut of overcrowding is back. Gangs, by the unions’ admission, now run the jails, even subcontracting out their work and organising hits and drug deals from our prisons. Yet according to the Department of Justice and the IPS all is hunky dory. It’s not, it’s chaotic and dangerous. Worse, it’s unheeded.

As a young officer, I stood in the ashes of Spike Island after another “expert group” assured us the army would be with us within five minutes in the event of a riot. How that could happen was a mystery since Spike was an island with no army on it. When it was razed to the ground in August 1985, the army arrived 14 hours later.

I stood in the middle of Arbour Hill as snooker balls, sharpened cues, steel wash buckets, and legs of chairs were used to attack us during another Department of Justice initiative, putting addled drug users and prisoners with Aids into that jail.

In the years of service, my abiding memory of our employer was this: What we achieved was despite them, not because of them. As an example of this, the Training Unit on Mountjoy campus with almost 100 capacity lies idle. Why? The POA now has to decide whether it’s safe for their members to work as civilians in State-sponsored jails. The duty of care and health and safety seems a foggy concept to the IPS and minister. This state of affairs needs to be lanced before some officer is shot, stabbed or killed.

John Cuffe began work as a prison officer in Mountjoy in May 1978. He worked in the Irish Prison Service for 30 years. He is the author of Inside the Monkey House: My Time as an Irish Prison Officer

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