Is report on the prison service ‘locked away’?

The investigation into allegations of illegal surveillance in prisons concluded in March, but the findings have yet to be published, says Special Correspondent Michael Clifford.

Is report on the prison service ‘locked away’?

The investigation into allegations of illegal surveillance in prisons concluded in March, but the findings have yet to be published, says Special Correspondent Michael Clifford.

Charlie Flanagan is a great man for finalising. Like the legendary salesman who is always ‘closing’ on a deal, the Justice Minister is always finalising, certainly as far as one messy report is concerned.

Last November, Mr Flanagan ordered an “urgent” investigation into allegations of illegal surveillance in the prison service.

The urgency was on foot of an Irish Examiner report that a senior officer, assistant chief officer, David McDonald, had sworn an affidavit alleging the surveillance.

This was said to include the placing of tracking devices on private vehicles and listening in on conversations between prisoners and solicitors.

The inspector of prisons, Patricia Gilheaney, was appointed by the minister to investigate.

Notwithstanding limits on her powers, she delivered her report by mid-March. Then, for some reason, the urgency went out of the matter. Following a brief sojourn in the Attorney General’s office, the report has been in the process of being ‘finalised’ since then.

On May 3, Mr Flanagan told RTÉ’s Drivetime that he was now “finalising” the report for publication.

On June 3, a spokesperson for the Department told the Irish Examiner the minister was “finalising” the report for publication.

On Monday of this week, a spokesperson told the Irish Examiner that the minister was “finalising” the report for publication this month.

Presumably, the minister isn’t editing the report. Presumably, any legal problems with publication were dealt with by the Attorney General. Yet the finalising of publication is now taking as long as the investigation to compile the report.

Is the minister simply road-testing spin tactics to be deployed on publication, or is he just putting it on the never, never?

Mr Flanagan is obliged, by law, to publish and there are some serious issues at stake. Any suggestion that there was illegal surveillance raises the possibility of a criminal investigation and the prospect of a plethora of civil actions.

If there was such activity afoot, how high within the prison service might people be implicated? What of the gardaí? The allegation is that members of the gardaí were fed intelligence from the surveillance. Did anybody ask how it had come about?

Today, the Irish Examiner reports on a call for publication by a prison officer who says he was the target of illegal surveillance.

The officer who made the allegations, ACO David McDonald, has also called for it to be published, in order to validate his allegations.

These are the messy issues that might be occupying a minister who is up to his ears in ‘finalising’.

Timing may well be a factor in this constant delay.

Right now, the prison service has plenty of trouble to be going on with, before even contemplating the arrival of what could be a missile in the form of the surveillance report.

A glimpse of a strange kind of chaos in the service was evident in a High Court case heard last week. Three officers — including ACO McDonald — are challenging decisions to have them transferred within the system. It was in connection with this case that McDonald swore the affidavit with the explosive allegations.

In the course of the High Court hearing, it was stated that the most senior governor in the service — Martin O’Neill — disputed the Irish Prison Service’s claims about protocol on transfers.

Mr O’Neill is manager of the West Dublin campus, incorporating Cloverhill and Wheatfield prisons.

His affidavit was in conflict with the position of IPS management and favourable to the three officers.

In response, the High Court was told by the IPS lawyer that Mr O’Neill was on extended sick leave. Such a term carries all sorts of connotations, including that the afflicted person has a long-term illness or is removed or remote from day-to-day activity.

In fact, O’Neill is merely recovering from a specific condition. This was referenced by Rory de Bruir, lawyer for the three men, in court last Friday.

“The response (to Mr O’Neill’s affidavit) is that Martin O’Neill is a governor of the IPS, he has not worked in HR, and wouldn’t be familiar with current operational practices…that he is currently on extended sick leave…an inference that he is a long time out…he is six weeks out,” Mr De Bruir told Judge Una Ni Raifeartaigh.

“Here is an attempt by IPS to disregard a report from the most senior governor in the service.

So we’re told by IPS that they do not believe the three officers, nor do they accept that the most senior campus man is aware of transfer protocol.

The submission highlighted an extraordinary rupture between IPS management and its most senior governor.

The conflict in the upper echelons doesn’t end there. Another senior governor, Ethel Gavin — who featured prominently in a behind-the-scenes TV series on the Midlands prison, earlier this year — is also in dispute with management.

Entirely separately, last month, the Irish Examiner reported that two other staff members at governor level are being investigated over alleged financial improprieties.

Another issue that has been highlighted in coroners’ courts and the media, in recent months, is the circumstances around deaths in custody. In a number of such cases, it has emerged that prisoners who had been classified vulnerable were not checked in the proper manner in the hours before they died.

In some of these cases, subsequent investigations uncovered evidence of attempts to cover up the failures.

The service has also had to deal with the fall-out from protected disclosures, including one about the mishandling and financial settlement of a case of sexual harassment against a staff member.

This is the environment into which Charlie Flanagan is obliged to deliver what could be an explosive report, whenever he finalises his finalising.

On the broader front, the washing of all this dirty linen may, in time, force the Government to conclude that the prison service cannot continue without some proper oversight body.

The culture of keeping a lid on every scandal, in order to avoid any embarrassment, is one that many within the service believe has had its day.

Yet without oversight, it is doomed to continue.

Meanwhile, the smart money says the minister will finally publish late in the week leading up to the August bank holiday, with politicians safely on their holliers and the public at large otherwise distracted.

While the spin machine may thus alleviate the most immediate pain for minister and the IPS, it certainly won’t make the problems go away.

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