Prison bosses are considering arming with batons and body cameras officers in a new facility for the most dangerous prisoners.
The Violent Disruptive Prisoner (VDP) Unit in the Midlands Prison is due to open in September and will house up to five of the most violent of inmates.
It will also operate an assessment centre, capable of holding a further four prisoners.
If the Irish Prison Service (IPS) agree to provide officers in the unit with batons, it would be the first such deployment in decades, outside of specialist riot teams and high-profile escorts.
The Prison Officers’ Association is insisting on the provision, but also wants to see batons extended to all prison officers to deal with violence.
The latter suggestion has been rejected by the IPS.
In what would be another landmark move, the Prison Service is considering providing officers at the VDP unit with body cameras.
An IPS spokesman told the Irish Examiner: “The Irish Prison Service is carrying out a risk assessment in relation to this matter [batons], but has not made a final decision, in relation to whether staff working on the unit will be issued with batons.
“The use of body-worn cameras for all officers, when located on the unit, is being considered as an additional security measure.”
The spokesman said the unit would be operational by the third quarter of 2018.
“While the building works are scheduled to be completed at the end of July, 2018, staff training will continue for a period of time after this,” he said.
It will be September before the unit is operational.
The spokesman said: “The unit will be a national facility, which is being established in order to better manage violent and highly disruptive prisoners.”
He said a key feature of the unit was a “significantly enhanced role” for the Psychology Service in day-to-day management of the unit.
“The unit is psychologically informed on multiple levels: The physical environment, staff selection and training, provision of reflective space for the team [supervision], the centrality of relational security and attention to auditing/measuring of outcomes,” he said.
He said the unit had two complementary functions.
“Firstly, it is to house five such prisoners, defined as VDP according to IPS VDP policy, and, secondly, to act as an assessment centre for up to four prisoners at any given time, who have been referred there to ascertain if they should be reclassified to VDP status,” said the IPS spokesman.
The unit is located in part of a wing of Midlands Prison, in Portlaoise.
Sources said the facility is for the violent prisoners “at the very top of the scale”.
A review of assaults on prison staff by the State Claims Agency, in 2016, said estimates of prisoners with “severe behavioural problems range from 15-25 at any one time”.
It said: “These can present really difficult challenges for the prison service and be very significant threats to operational staff.”
Jim Mitchell, deputy general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, said they had argued for batons for VDP staff at “every meeting with the IPS and that they acceded to the request”.
He said they believed it made the case to have it for “all officers”, but said this has been rejected by the IPS.
IPS figures on assaults on prison officers show a 14% increase in incidents in the last two years, from 91, in 2015, to 104, in 2017.
Mr Mitchell said the statistics do not show the true scale and he welcomed recent demands from Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan for a more detailed analysis.
The State Claims Agency review said it was “critical” a “full data set”, capturing all assault incidents, be set up in the next number of years.
It said the current statistics do not capture “inadvertent or unintentional punches or kicks, received when staff are intervening, for example, in prisoner-on-prisoner assaults”.
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