A new recording system has revealed that far greater numbers of prison officers are injured by inmates than was previously reflected in official statistics. New figures published by the Irish Prison Service for ‘restraint interventions’ show that there were 137 incidents in 2018. This compares to 91 incidents in 2017, when such incidents began to be counted.
Restraint interventions cover situations where a prisoner is not complying, including where a prisoner is assaulting another inmate, and officers are injured trying to restrain them.
The new ‘restraint’ injuries are in addition to the figures for ‘prisoner-on-staff assaults’. These show there were 110 assaults in 2018, compared to 104 in 2017. The assault figures have been rising steadily since 2015, when there were 91 instances.
The restraint intervention records have been welcomed by the association representing prison officers, which has repeatedly raised serious concerns that the full scale of injuries caused by prisoners was not being captured by the Irish Prison Service (IPS).
“This is a brand new tool for recording interventions,” said Jim Mitchell, deputy general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA).
This is the first metric I’ve seen and we welcome it. It gives a deeper understanding of the work we do.
He said the association was not yet able to determine how accurate the system is.
“The vast majority of those interventions would have been prisoner-on-prisoner violence, so, to intervene in each of those, prison officers are putting themselves in harm’s way in order to save a prisoner,” said Mr Mitchell.
“There were 137 interventions in 2018. That’s a serious amount of interventions by a significant amount of staff — two or three prison officers or four, if a formalised intervention. These interventions are to prevent a prisoner being seriously injured, or worse, by another prisoner.”
The figures show that of the 137 incidents in 2018, the highest numbers were in Wheatfield (23) Mountjoy male prison (21), Limerick (17), Cloverhill (17), Cork (12), and Midlands (12).
There were 11 incidents in Dóchas female prison (none in 2017) and 11 in Castlerea. There were also 11 incidents in the Prison Service Escort Corps (15 in 2017).
In a 2016 review, the State Claims Agency called for a full data set on all assaults in prisons, saying that officers had a genuine concern about the completeness of the assault figures.
The Irish Prison Service says it began publishing the figures to capture incidents where prison officers may have received an injury while “restraining a non-compliant prisoner”.
It is important to highlight these instances to give a clearer picture of the difficulties prison service staff face in the course of their work.
Assaults on staff by prisoners show a steady rise in recent years, from 91 in 2015, to 98 in 2016, to 104 in 2017, and 110 in 2018.
Mountjoy male prison has the highest number, with 24 in 2018, compared to 22 in 2015, and 12 in 2016. Cork Prison has the next highest number, with 15 in 2018, against seven in 2015, and three in 2016. Dóchas figures fell from 26 cases in 2016 to eight last year.
Mr Mitchell said he is cautious about interpreting the figures, saying there were very serious assaults on officers in 2015, which on paper did not appear to be the worst year for assaults. He welcomed the establishment last year of the National Violence Reduction Unit, located in Midlands Prison. The unit houses the most violent of inmates, with a capacity for 10 prisoners.
Mr Mitchell said the POA wanted the personal protection equipment given to staff in the National Violence Reduction Unit, including batons and bodycams, to be provided to all staff. The IPS offers supports to staff such as the Employee Assistance Programme, an independent counselling service, and a Serious Physical Assault Scheme.