Prison staff seek support to deal with jail deaths

Prison officers who have to deal with the death of an inmate often experience a “ripple effect” in their personal lives, and many would like to the see the Irish Prison Service employ dedicated peer support officers.

A study to be published later this year looks at the experiences of 20 prison service staff of varying grades and degrees of experience in relation to their experience of inmate deaths.

It found that while many welcomed the progress made in relation to peer support in recent years, more could be done, in particular, following the example of the Defence Forces in having dedicated peer support personnel.

The study was conducted by Colette Barry of the School of Languages, Law and Social Sciences at Dublin Institute of Technology, and involved speaking with staff at various grades, including at prison governor level.

She will discuss her findings today on State Accountability for Vulnerability at the School of Nursing in DCU.

Some of the interviewees had experience of just one death in custody, while other staff had experience of a number of deaths in jail.

She said all interviewees stressed the professional response to the deaths that occurred, whether they were suicides, murders, drug- related, or from natural causes, but she said some had experienced a “ripple effect” in their own lives afterwards.

Referring to the “aftermath” of a death in prison, Ms Barry said one interviewee had said he had difficulty afterwards in looking at representations of suicide on television.

Another interviewee became preoccupied with his own children’s safety, and particularly when it came to them having anything around their necks.

There were other pressures, such as involvement of the inspector of prisons in the reviewing of any prisoner death, leading some staff to worry about any level of exposure they might be open to around issues such as the regularity of checks on inmates.

“A lot of [the interviewees] would say that you can train people but how can you train them to deal with a death?” she said.

Much training is conducted through the higher certificate in custodial care but Ms Barry said: “Many of the more experienced staff felt that the prison service had gone too far towards book learning and academia, that it was like studying the Leaving Cert.”

Peer support programmes are in place but many interviewees said they should be full-time positions, with Ms Barry claiming many felt “the foundation is built but can we take it a step further”.


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