Prison officers will be legally obliged to co-operate with inquiries into complaints against them by inmates and provide true answers to questions put by investigators.
They will face disciplinary punishment if they fail to do so, under plans to set up a new complaints mechanism for the prison system.
However, Justice Minister Alan Shatter said implementing the system would take time and he has set a three-year deadline for prison bosses.
He said he was setting up the system on foot of a report by the inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly.
Mr Shatter said complaints involving serious allegations would be independently investigated by external experts. He also said there would be “a major cultural change” in the way complaints are addressed within the prison system.
Judge Reilly’s report showed there were 348 complaints by inmates against staff between July 2010 and June 2011.
* 76 allegations of assault by staff;
* 54 allegations in relation to complaint forms;
* 17 complaints regarding medication;
* 14 allegations of verbal abuse by staff;
* 10 complaints of racial abuse by officers;
* Five allegations of sexual assault by staff.
Last year, Judge Reilly issued a report stating there were a significant number of incidents in Mountjoy Prison where prisoners suffered serious injuries that did not lead to effective investigations by prison or garda authorities.
He said the failure to address the problem was leading to “the beginning of a culture of impunity”, which a group of staff were taking advantage of.
In his report to the minister published yesterday, he said the vast majority of complaints concerned “everyday things” in prisons, such as delayed mail, the quality of food, problems with family visits, and not having enough time out of cells.
Judge Reilly said the “great bulk” of complaints should be investigated and resolved at local level by prison managers, under independent supervision.
He called for four broad categories of complaints, from Category A to Category D. These would range from the most serious types — such as assault — to minor misconduct by staff.
Judge Reilly said staff would be compelled to cooperate with investigators: “Prison staff must not be free to refuse to answer questions or cooperate with an enquiry being conducted in a disciplinary context.”
Mr Shatter said: “The proposals envisage a major cultural change in the way complaints are addressed and recorded... affecting several thousand individuals.”
He said he had directed Prison Service director general Michael Donnellan to draw up an implementation plan by next spring.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust said the proposals had “all the necessary elements for a robust and effective complaints process”.
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