Five of the country’s most violent prisoners are being housed in a therapeutic secure facility in a bid to reduce the risk they pose to prison officers – and lower the danger to the community once they are released.
In what is a first in the Irish prison system, prison officers and psychologists will jointly run the unit, which combines specific physical security systems and therapeutic interventions.
Also breaking new ground, prison officers will wear body cameras and they will also be armed with batons, which are currently only available to officers on escort duty.
Summing up the objective of the nine-bed Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), located within the Midlands Prison, the director general of the Prison Service Michael Donnellan said: “The win in the future will be less violence and less damage and a safer community.”
The Prison Officers' Association welcomed the unit but warned prison bosses that a “consistent approach” had to be taken to behaviour – with good behaviour rewarded and bad behaviour, such as assaults on staff, appropriately punished.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust also welcomed the new unit, but said it would be important in the coming months to ensure that “practice reflects policy” in its daily operation.
The Irish Examiner revealed in April 2017 that the Prison Service was introducing the new unit, based on similar facilities in Britain.
The media was taken on a tour of the facility today. Five prisoners in the system have already been identified for the unit and are due in next week. They are housed in the intervention section, which also has a spare sixth cell for emergencies, such as a murder or hostage taking.
In addition, there is a self-contained special observation cell for those with a severe mental illness who are a severe risk to others or themselves.
There are also four assessment cells in the unit, whereby prisoners are placed over a four-month period and assessed for suitability.
There are a total of 22 staff, working over two shifts, including four female officers.
The facility is jointly run by Assistant Governor Constantine Cazac and senior psychologist Dr Lucy Rowell.
Dr Rowell said every decision is made together. She said there was “lots of conflict along the way” and that they did not necessarily agree on everything, but that they had created an integrated approach.
She said she worked with the prison officers to “make sure what they are doing is psychologically informed” and that they had seven weeks of training, involving an understanding of “why people are violent”.
She said there had been “a shift” in officers in terms of “their attitudes about prisoners”.
Mark Wilson, deputy director in operations and chair of the implementation group, explained that these dangerous inmates were currently dealt by “barrier handling” every time to exit their cells.
This comprises four to five officers in full riot gear, moving the prisoner to wherever they are going, with no human interaction.
He said there were “higher levels of physical security” in the unit so that barrier handling doesn’t have to be used.
Cells have double doors, with a grilled door behind the main door, which means that when an officer opens the main door they are not at risk of attack and can assess the prisoner’s behaviour and interact with them.
Three of VRU cells have double doors and three just have the normal single doors, for those inmates have been assessed as making progress.
The inmates, separately, have access to a “multi-purpose” room, which is decked out in bright purple, blue and green colours, including two large purple bean bags as well as a table and four chairs.
They can play X-Box and watch the television and can have access to a kitchenette behind shutters.
Ass Gov Cazac said many inmates can’t cook a pizza and that they wanted to “build them up, step by step”. He added: “We’re not here to punish anybody, we want to enable them to become a better person.”
There are also separate, and specially designed, consultation rooms, visitors’ rooms and a dedicated yard.
Asked were they rewarding violent prisoners, Dr Emma Black, head of the Prison Psychology Service, said: "I can understand when people see the multi-purpose room and wonder whether or not they deserve that. What we are trying to do is that people have some form of normality when they are in prison, because they are going to leave prison.
If they don’t experience some normality in prison how are they going to behave normally outside?
She added: “One of our main things is to make sure there are not more victims in the community. Yes, people have come to prison and they have engaged in extreme harm to people and are engaging in harm in prison. What we are trying to make do is ensure there are no more victims.”
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, who also toured the unit, said: “This is all about the reduction of risk: risk to staff; risk for prisoners and; given the fact everyone serving a prison term will ultimately be released, about ensuring that risk is minimised for the community.”