The justice minister has warned that if a prison officer leaked details of Fianna Fáil TD Éamon Ó Cuív’s visit to Limerick Prison to the media, that officer breached the Official Secrets Act and could face prosecution.
The minister, Frances Fitzgerald has confirmed to Mr Ó Cuív that she has sought a full report from the director general of the Irish Prison Service into the circumstances surrounding the visit. She said the divulging of information regarding a prisoner’s private affairs was viewed as a serious matter by the prison service.
Mr Ó Cuív had asked the minister when she would set up an inquiry into the leak of, what he said was, confidential information regarding the visit he made to Limerick Prison on October 30. He also asked her what steps she would take to stop it happening again.
Ms Fitzgerald said that, in the course of an officer’s work, “he or she may have access to, or hear inform-ation concerning the personal affairs of a prisoner and/or employee”.
“Such information, irrespective of the format is strictly confidential,” she said.
“Any member of the Irish Prison Service who discharges or divulges information to any third party or the media is not only contravening clear policy, but is also contravening the law. The divulging of information regarding prisoners’ private affairs is very damaging not only to the Irish Prison Service but also to the families of those who are in prison.”
Ms Fitzgerald said that the breach of confidence was an offence under the Prison (Disciplinary Code for Off-icers) Rules, 1996.
The Minister said it was open to a governor to carry out an investigation under the Code of Discipline and, if satisfied the breach was serious, proceed to an oral hearing.
“The penalties provided for under the Code are (a) a reprimand, or (b) a reprimand plus a reduction in rank or a reduction in pay by deferment of one or more increments for one, three, six or 12 months or any longer period the Governor may specify, or (c) dismissal from the Prison Service,” she said.
“Any such breach of confidence would also be a breach of the Official Secrets Act 1963 and could be subject to prosecution under Section 13 of that Act.”
She said it was also open to Mr Ó Cuív to make a complaint to gardaí.
She said when officers are recruited to the prison service they are required to sign a copy of the Official Secrets Act.
“Staff are also expected to sign to acknowledge that they have received this particular act in hardcopy and that they have read and understand it,” said Ms Fitzgerald.
“During their induction, Officers are educated about the use of information and discretion and are made aware of their legal obligations in this regard.”
When contacted by the Irish Examiner, Mr Ó Cuív did not give details of the prison visit but said a journalist had been “able to tell me everything about the meeting”.
He also said that, given the nature of that detail, “I am absolutely sure it did not come from another prisoner”.
He did acknowledge what he said was a very “fulsome” response from the minister.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved