Michael Clifford: Arrested development - How are our jails run?

With just one governor on its executive management team, control of the Irish Prison Service has switched to civil servants, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford: Arrested development - How are our jails run?

With just one governor on its executive management team, control of the Irish Prison Service has switched to civil servants, writes Special Correspondent Michael Clifford

Martin O’Neill was sitting in the public gallery of the court.

He passed a note across to the barrister representing the three prison officers who were taking a case against the Irish Prison Service.

Quite obviously, Mr O’Neill was providing some form of assistance to the prison officers’ counsel. There would be nothing unusual in any of this except Martin O’Neill is the most senior governor in the Irish Prison Service.

To that extent his intervention was unprecedented, a senior manager siding with three employees who were in conflict with senior management.

The scene on October 30 last year on the fourth floor of Áras Uí Dhálaigh in the Four Courts complex was symptomatic of a creeping transformation in how the prisons are run.

There is currently minimal input from governors into the running of the service. Five years ago, a major cultural report into the service recommended a greater role for operational personnel.

At the time, the management body overseeing the prisons included three governors.

Today it has only one, Mr O’Neill, who is in conflict with the service and has next to no input.

Five years ago, there were three campus governors overseeing prisons in Mountjoy, West Dublin, and the Midlands. Today, there is only one campus governor — Mr O’Neill.

Management and influence has moved to the greatest extent from governors, who know all about prisons, to the civil servants who run the service in Longford.

The second-most senior governor in the service, Ethel Gavin, retired on March 27. Ms Gavin was reportedly highly disillusioned with her treatment at the hands of management.

She submitted a protected disclosure about what she believes to have been an attempt to undermine her position and authority. That is currently being examined by an external legal firm.

Prior to falling out with the civil servants in Longford, Ms Gavin had been constantly put forward as the bright, shining example of the service.

She was highly regarded not just by senior management, but by bodies concerned with the welfare of prisoners, such as the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

The Midlands Prison where she was governor featured in a TV series and she had been extensively interviewed across the media. Then came her problems with management.

Ms Gavin had an exemplary record in the service, as has Mr O’Neill. Prior to their troubles, both were widely regarded as being loyal to the service.

The Irish Examiner has spoken to a range of sources at various levels within the prison service about this apparent shift of power and responsibility.

One put it as follows: “It would be like having not just a civilian as commissioner of the gardaí, but all his or her deputies and assistant commissioners also drafted in from civilian life. Who would ever think that that is a good idea?”

In November 2015, a major report, Culture and Organisation in the Irish Prison Service — A Road Map To The Future, was published.

The report was written by then inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, and Professor Andrew Coyle, who was a professor of prison studies at the University of London.

Among the recommendations was that a new post of deputy director general (DDG) in the IPS should be established.

“In order to have credibility in this role the DDG should have had operational experience at the highest level,” the report stated.

It went on to note that the primary responsibility of a director general was to ensure that prisons operate in a secure, safe, and humane manner.

In order to deliver that, he needs to have the support of someone at the highest level who has intimate and practical knowledge of how prisons operate and who can provide meaningful support and direction to governors who are in charge of prisons.

This might appear self-evident. How could a complex, security-heavy sector function without serious input from the operational side? Yet the Irish Prison Service is doing just that.

The report also stated that the campus model had some problems and recommended that it be replaced by one consisting of two “regional directors” who would oversee the State’s 11 prisons.

In recent years the campus model has been largely dismantled but it has not been replaced with a regional model as recommended.

The conflicts that arose with Mr O’Neill and Ms Gavin respectively are, according to a number of sources, symptomatic of the wider problems rather than indicative of any issues peculiar to those individuals.

As a campus governor, Mr O’Neill was a member of the Executive Management Team, consisting of five directors of the service and three campus governors.

In 2018, he lodged a grievance claim that he had been subjected to persistent bullying, intimidation, and monitoring of communications. The claim, which included 40 different grounds, was highly unusual, coming from such a senior figure.

As a result, the Department of Justice handled it, rather than the prison service.

Eventually, the grievance claim was not upheld.

The conflict between the most senior operational figure in the service and management was further exacerbated at the court case involving the three prison officers, mentioned above.

Mr O’Neill swore an affidavit about training procedures in the service which he had been involved in developing.

Lawyers for the prison service objected to elements of the affidavit, with counsel telling the judge that Mr O’Neill was on “sick leave”.

The implication — taken up by lawyers for the three officers — was that Mr O’Neill was no longer functioning in his senior role and his affidavit should be read in that context.

In fact, the governor was recuperating from a relatively routine operation.

Earlier this month, Mr O’Neill was appointed governor of the Mountjoy campus.

The West Dublin campus he oversaw has reverted to two separate prisons. As a governor of campus level, Mr O’Neill was entitled to a similar posting, and Mountjoy is the only remaining campus.

The Irish Examiner understands that Mr O’Neill has written directly to the Minister for Justice, outlining major concerns about his appointment.

Ms Gavin had also had a stellar career in the service prior to her conflict with management.

She was acting campus governor of the Midlands and Portlaoise prisons in May 2018 when 15 prison officers walked off the job in a high security unit in Portlaoise over an industrial dispute.

Ms Gavin acted immediately to defuse any security problem by persuading other officers to fill in for their absent colleagues.

The spontaneous action was contrary to all rules and initially the officers were subjected to a disciplinary action.

That, however, was soon reversed.

Instead, Ms Gavin and two of her assistants were transferred. She was demoted from acting campus governor back to governor of Portlaoise.

She was not subjected to any disciplinary action, yet was effectively sanctioned despite there being no allegation that she had mishandled the situation.

Later, it was to emerge that there had been an administrative error in Ms Gavin’s appointment as acting campus governor, totally unbeknownst to her.

The error left open a legal lacuna that could have allowed prisoners to challenge the legality of their detention.

Ms Gavin is understood to believe that her effective demotion was connected with an attempt to rectify that error.

She submitted a protected disclosure about the matter, which is currently being investigated by a legal firm.

“She was stunned when she found out about the issue around her appointment,” a source said.

All they would have had to do was explain to her what had happened and it could have been sorted out. What it showed was that they didn’t trust her. And it’s difficult to see why. She was a company person.

Ms Gavin took early retirement, leaving the service on March 27.

She is the latest of a number of governors who have taken retirement in recent years rather than continue until the age of 65.

The current director general of the Irish Prison Service is Caron McCaffrey, who was appointed after the retirement of her predecessor, Michael Donnellan, in October 2018.

Mr Donnellan had signed a five-year contract in 2016 but subsequently decided to leave early.

Those who have spoken to the Irish Examiner do not suggest that any cultural shift occurred because of a change at the top. Neither person has ever worked in a prison.

The current director of corporate services is Donna Creavan.

She was appointed to the role after an open competition last September, having previously worked in the Data Protection Commissioners office as a governance, compliance, and risk specialist. Ms Creavan chairs the special group set up to respond to the coronavirus in prisons. She is highly regarded in her area of speciality but has never worked in prisons.

The director of operations is Fergus Black, who has been in that role for a number of years.

Mr Black did not work in the prison system prior to his appointment as director of operations.

Since the establishment of the Irish Prison Service 20 years ago it had been the policy of successive directors general to allocate positions on the governing bodies to the most senior prison governors.

In 2012 the system of campus governors was established as part of a review of the service.

The three campus governors were part of the Executive Management Team.

In December 2016, the Midlands campus governor, Martin Mullen, retired.

He was initially replaced on the EMT by Ethel Gavin, but following her effective demotion in May 2018, she lost her place on the governing body.

In September 2018, Brian Murphy, the Mountjoy campus governor, retired.

He was not replaced on the EMT. That left Mr O’Neill as the only person on the team with operational experience.

His relationship with senior management in Longford has resulted in his influence and input on the EMT being minimal.

A new governance structure is currently being planned in the IPS as part of a three-year strategic review.

A statement from the IPS confirmed that the recommendations from the Reilly Culture Report would not now be implemented. The review does not clearly state whether the executive management team will continue, but the Irish Examiner understands there are plans to replace it with a new governing body.

This body, according to a number of sources, will still include the Longford-based directors and will make provision for two members from the operational side. It is unclear how these two members will be selected or whether the governors as a body will have any input into the selection.

The review was launched last September in the wake of a series of controversies within the service, including an investigation into illegal surveillance of prison officers and circumstances around deaths in custody, which included the falsifying of records and shoddy investigations.

Portlaoise Prison
Portlaoise Prison

Michael Reilly, the former inspector of prisons who co-wrote the Culture Report in 2015, died prematurely the following year.

His report was adamant about the requirement that the service needed operational experience at the highest level in order to retain credibility.

All the indications are that operational experience is not considered to be of much value in the prison service right now.

A number of questions on culture, strategy, and operational experience were sent to the prison service.

These include:

  • Is there a current policy to minimise the input of operational personnel in senior management? This is in the context of the presence of just one governor — Martin O’Neill — currently on the Executive Management Team?
  • Are there any plans to increase the input from operational personnel in senior management?
  • Do any of the current directors of the IPS have operational experience?
  • Have any reforms as recommended under the culture report published in 2015 been undertaken? Why have regional directors, as recommended, not been appointed?
  • Is there a specific management reform agenda in place and if so, what does it consist of and has any funding been allocated for it?

In response, the Prison Service said:

“The Irish Prison Service has a standard senior management structure which includes a range of skills, experience [including operational] as well as relevant qualifications.

“In addition, a number of directorates in headquarters have amongst the senior management cohort, staff with operational or prisons-based experience.

Relevant personnel are involved at the various levels of decision-making in the IPS and there are no plans to change the input from operational personnel.

“In line with other civil service organisations, all new appointments to senior management positions in the Irish Prison Service are open competitions and any person who meets the criteria for eligibility for the competition may apply.

“The current directors of the Irish Prison Service all have a range of appropriate experience and/or qualifications relevant to their areas of responsibility including, for example, operations, human resources, finance, and governance, compliance, and risk management.

“The reforms recommended in the 2015 culture report were considered in detail at that time but events were overtaken by the transformation programme in the Department of Justice and Equality and, as set out in the current IPS strategic plan, work is ongoing by the department and the Irish Prison Service to design a new governance framework for the prison service which will strengthen governance, compliance, and accountability.

“It is intended that this should be supported by an advisory board, as recommended by the Effectiveness and Renewal Group for the Department of Justice.

“A consequence of these proposals is that the recommendation in the 2015 report relating to the appointment of regional directors will not proceed,” it stated.

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