It comes as official figures show a fivefold increase in assaults by inmates on staff at Dóchas Women’s Prison last year. The dramatic rise from five assaults in 2015 to 26 in 2016 is against the background of a slight rise in the number of prisoner-on-staff assaults, up from 91 to 98.
The issue will feature strongly at the annual conference of the Prison Officers’ Association, which begins in Galway today.
Speaking ahead of his address to Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald this morning, the association’s president Stephen Delaney last night claimed there was “no penalty” for prisoners who assaulted staff, including in cases where there was “a wealth of evidence”.
Prison authorities expect to open a Violent and Disruptive Prisoner Unit by September or October.
Four of the worst prisoners are earmarked to be housed in the secure unit, which will be based in Midlands Prison and will have capacity for more inmates.
One of those is thought to be a 28-year-old, who has 30 assault convictions and is responsible for multiple serious attacks on staff.
A second inmate, aged 31, has almost 40 convictions for assault, burglary and criminal damage and has carried out numerous assaults on prison officers.
The unit breaks new ground as it will be run jointly by psychologists and prison staff. An Irish Prison Service document said it will be the “first secure, therapeutically focused unit dealing with violently disruptive prisoners”.
It is modelled on similar units in England and Wales.
The document said that a violently disruptive prisoner is someone who engages in “serious, repetitive violent acts” and poses “particular operational difficulties”.
Irish Prison Service figures show the number of assaults on prison staff rose last year, to 98, with a big rise in Dóchas Women’s Prison (from five to 26). Assaults on staff are traditionally lower in Dóchas, with eight cases in 2014, seven in 2013 and three in 2012.
Prison authorities believe the jump was caused by a number of inmates with “behavioural issues” and that many of the assaults were not serious. Figures show a major rise in such assaults at Castlerea Prison (from eight to 21), and a rise in Wheatfield (from 10 to 12).
Excluding past year figures for juvenile prisoners at St Patrick’s Institution who are now housed at the Children Detention Centre, the number of prisoner-on- staff assaults have fluctuated from 71 in 2012, to 98 in 2013, peaking at 131 in 2014, since dropping back to 2013 levels.
Prison Officers’ Association general secretary John Clinton said the State Claims Agency estimated there would be 107 assaults on prison officers this year and said members should be given batons for defence.
Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults fell from 587 in 2015 to 572 in 2016. Excluding St Patrick’s figures, they compare to 580 assaults in 2014, 547 in 2013 and 559 in 2012.
There were increases last year at Castlerea Prison (from 117 to 139), Wheatfield (47 to 55), Midlands (47 to 50), Cork (27 to 33) and Portlaoise (from two to 15).
Mr Delaney called for mandatory sentences for attacks on prison officers and said the risk from assaults was exacerbated by a “staffing crisis”.