Prison service faces time in the docks

A new director general was appointed to the Irish Prison Service last month, but the picture painted of the system by the minister was questionable, writes Michael Clifford.

Prison service faces time in the docks

A new director general was appointed to the Irish Prison Service last month, but the picture painted of the system by the minister was questionable, writes Michael Clifford.

What’s going on in the prisons? Last month, the minister for justice announced the appointment of Caron McCaffrey as the new director general of the Irish Prison Service.

“Her leadership will be essential in building on the significant advances made in recent years,” he said, “and in continuing to embed and drive further improvements in how we provide safe, secure, humane, and rehabilitative custody for people sent to prison in line with international human rights standards.”

Perhaps the minister was referencing another prison service because the one described bears little resemblance to the service that governs prisons in this State.

Today’s story in the Irish Examiner is one example of the kind of issues that pertain behind the State’s prison walls.

One day last May, 15 officers decided they were walking off the job in Portlaoise Prison. All were attached to A block which houses some of the most dangerous criminals in the State.

Their decision came after breakfast on May 4, during which they had a discussion about an assault on one of their colleagues the previous day.

On foot of the casual discussion, they came to the conclusion that they’d had enough. They felt their health and safety was not receiving proper consideration.

So off they went, leaving behind a largely unmanned wing of the prison. This automatically placed in danger the safety of colleagues and prisoners.

Shop workers can down tools and walk off the job. So can factory workers and journalists and train drivers.

Prison officers, like gardaí, nurses, or fire-fighting personnel don’t have the same luxury. The consequences of a spontaneous protest in those jobs places lives at risk.

The protest ended after a few hours and the officers went back to work.

Within days, all 15 were informed they would be transferred to Cloverhill, in west Dublin, around 90km from their base in Portlaoise.

There was uproar followed by talks between the Irish Prison Service and the Prison Officers Association. Out of that came a deal in which the prison officers signed a form admitting that their actions were inexcusable.

The text of the declaration was as follows: “I refer to the 04th of May 2018 on A Block Portlaoise prison on which date I made the decision to go absent from my post.

"The action taken by me was as a result of what I perceived to be unsound or unsafe decisions taken by management in respect of the management of prisoners in A Block.

“I accept that my absence in this case was without reasonable excuse and that this course of action placed the welfare of my colleagues and the security of the prison at significant risk.”

The quid pro quo was that the proposed transfers were suspended. If all involved turn up for work on time for a period of 12 months, the threat of sanction ends.

Meanwhile, three managers were transferred for minor infringements.

Portlaoise prison. File photo.
Portlaoise prison. File photo.

They believe their transfers were part of an unwritten pact between the prison service and the prison officers union, the IPOA, over the incident. The three are not members of the IPOA.

If they have a case then governance questions arise for the prison service.

Were the three managers sacrificed to keep the IPOA happy? Was the arrangement with the IPOA designed to keep a lid on things irrespective of what had occurred?

If enough prison officers, who are members of the IPOA, walk off the job together, can they be assured there will be no consequences?

This isn’t the only issue the prison service faces about questionable governance.

In November, this newspaper reported on claims by a veteran prison officer about covert surveillance that included family and associates of prison officers.

The claims also referenced security concerns on the basis that the records of surveillance were kept by a private investigations firm.

The prison officer also claimed that investigations of deaths in custody were shabby, unprofessional, and often concerned primarily with avoiding any scandal.

The minister, who lauds the prison service, ordered an urgent inquiry into the matter. Nearly two months later, there is not a peep out of anywhere. The urgency has apparently dissipated.

Twelve months ago, leading solicitors firm McCann Fitzgerald was retained to investigate a protected disclosure about how a case involving alleged sexual harassment, a settlement with a female prison officer, and the re-employment of the suspect in the case, were handled.

Caron McCaffrey, who was appointed the new director general of the Irish Prison Service last month.
Caron McCaffrey, who was appointed the new director general of the Irish Prison Service last month.

The disclosure was made the previous September.

Nothing was done until the case was reported in the Irish Examiner in December 2017.

The law firm’s investigation took a full year, which infers there was a lot to investigate, or that co-operation wasn’t forthcoming from some, or both.

One way or the other, it suggests something serious was investigated, something about which nothing was done until the matter appeared in the media.

Tomorrow, the Oireachtas public accounts committee will question prison service personnel about issues around another protected disclosure. Noel McGree, a prison officer, was put through the ringer after he made his disclosure.

The Workplace Relations Commission awarded him €30,000 for how he was treated by his employer after making the disclosure. No doubt the parliamentarians will want a few answers tomorrow in Leinster House.

All of these issues point to a culture within the service that is a long way from the shiny, happy, highly efficient and safe one the minister for justice appeared to reference last month.

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