Justice imprisoned: How a report with implications for prison officer safety met with delays and inaction

After an independent investigation concluded that three prison officers had undermined senior colleagues, possibly putting their safety in danger, by making disparaging and untrue comments about them to some of the most dangerous criminals in the State, the investigator’s report was  retained in headquarters,  without follow-up actions, for eight months, reports Michael Clifford
Justice imprisoned: How a report with implications for prison officer safety met with delays and inaction

One senior prison officer gave evidence to the Naughton investigation that when he started on the block in June 2018, one of the basic-grade officers told him soon after his arrival: 'We do not like you; we did not send for you; we do not want you; you won’t be staying. We will run you out of A Block.'

In May 2019, Freddie Thompson made a complaint to the governor of Portlaoise Prison. 

Thompson is serving a life sentence after being found guilty of murder, at the Special Criminal Court in 2018. He was considered to be a major player in the Kinahan crime cartel and was once known as 'Fat Freddie'.

He complained that three prison officers on the block of the prison where he was resident were constantly undermining the three senior officers and their work. This involved the three basic-grade officers making comments to the prisoners about the senior men, such as saying one or other was “a fucking idiot”; that the senior officers were “yes men”; or that “they will tell you they will do something and then not do it — persons not to be believed”.

Thompson said these comments were damaging to one of the three senior officers in particular and “may put his life in danger if prisoners were to believe that he was lying and could not be believed”.

Thompson was on A Block in the prison. This block is home to some of the most dangerous convicted criminals in the State. A number are serving life sentences for murders that occurred as part of the gun-crime gangland culture involving murderous feuds. 

A complaint was made to the governor of Portlaoise Prison that comments made by basic-grade officers were damaging to one of three senior officers. 	Picture: Colin Keegan/Collins
A complaint was made to the governor of Portlaoise Prison that comments made by basic-grade officers were damaging to one of three senior officers. Picture: Colin Keegan/Collins

Some have reputations for being extremely violent and difficult to control. There are 40 cells on the block, but only 26 or 27 are occupied at any one time for security reasons.

In June 2018, the then-new governor of the prison, John Farrell, began making changes to A block in an attempt to relieve tensions. The changes included plans to introduce a library and reorganise visits.

Thompson’s complaint was considered to be a serious allegation that suggested the lives of senior officers could be put in danger. It was thus deemed a Category A complaint — a category that would typically be used in relation to complaints from prisoners of assault or serious threats.

This required a person outside the Irish Prison Service to investigate the matter. External investigations are conducted by individuals on a panel, who tend to have a background in the gardaí or a specialist branch of the military.

The investigator in this case was subsequently named in a parliamentary question as John Naughton.

Before the investigation got under way, the officers'  union, the Prison Officers' Association (POA), objected to the categorisation of the complaint as being of the most serious level. 

Representations from the union dismissed the complaint as it involved the word of an inmate being taken over that of an officer. Despite that, management in the prison service felt it was a very serious matter, requiring a Category A.

Arguably, this was an issue to do with the safety of prison officers in an environment housing dangerous and potentially violent individuals and should have been referred to the gardaí.

The investigation by Mr Naughton got under way in late August 2019. A number of prison officers and prisoners, including Thompson, were interviewed.

Thompson related his experience. He told the investigator he had nothing to gain from making the complaint and even though it could cause him problems, he wanted it investigated. 

He said the three senior officers had supported him and other prisoners with matters on the block such as setting up the library and trying to arrange open visits with family.

Sean Farrell was an inmate in A block until January 2019. He confirmed to the investigator the gist of what Thompson had alleged. He said somebody would get hurt if it continued. 

Many prisoners can’t handle these situations and will turn to violence

He told the investigator he would have been aware of prisoners who might have it in their minds to hurt the three senior officers.

Prisoner Thomas Fox, who is also serving a life sentence for murder, told the investigator that he had previously made a complaint about the three basic-grade officers. He confirmed he had heard the three of them disparage the three senior officers in front of him.

Other prisoners who were interviewed, including convicted murderers Warren Dumbrell and Barry Doyle, had not heard any such comments. Neither had two prison officers who were interviewed. 

Another, a senior officer, had been told by a prisoner that some staff were “winding him up and telling him lies”.

This officer also stated they were aware of serious bullying issues engaged in by officers who were resistant to change, but “the majority of staff supported the introduction of the services which improved the lives of prisoners and as a consequence improved the working conditions of staff".

This officer told the investigator that "undermining comments" were made, but never in their presence.

Governor Farrell told the investigator he had been aware that some of the initiatives he had introduced were “subversively resisted by some officers”.

He had been told of disparaging comments being made about some of the senior officers, he told the investigator. That prompted him to issue a general instruction to staff in April 2019, entitled 'Appropriate communication'. 

In it, he emphasised that staff should be respectful of each other and not make any negative comments about other officers to prisoners.

The three senior officers, about whom the disparaging remarks were allegedly made, all gave evidence. 

One mentioned that when he started on the block in June 2018, one of the basic-grade officers told him soon after his arrival: “We do not like you; we did not send for you; we do not want you; you won’t be staying. We will run you out of A Block.” 

The basic-grade officer denied that he said this.

The three officers who were accused of making the comments all gave evidence to the Naughton investigation. For the interview, each had a union representative present who stated that the POA view was that the complaint was wrongly categorised, but they were attending out of courtesy. 

All three denied resisting change or making disparaging comments about their colleagues.

Mr Naughton completed his task in late November 2019. He found: “There was a lot of resistance to the regime change that was being implemented by Governor Farrell and his team in June 2018.” 

He said that he found one of the three basic-grade officers “guarded and not forthcoming at interview”. 

He stated that another of the three had said Freddie Thompson’s complaint was fabricated and without foundation. The investigator stated: “I do not accept that this is the case.” 

He found that it was “undeniable that some officers were making comments to deliberately try to undermine the work” of one of the senior officers.

In conclusion, the investigator stated: “Based on my review of all the evidence gathered, and taking into account the statements of the complainant, witnesses, and prison personnel, documentary evidence of the issues involved, I am of the opinion that there are grounds for the complaint.” 

The result was unprecedented in a prison setting in this country. An independent investigation had concluded that three officers had undermined their senior colleagues, possibly putting their safety in danger, by making disparaging and untrue comments about them to some of the most dangerous criminals in the State.

What followed, in the handling of that result, was just as worrying.

The complaints system dictates that once an outside investigator produces a report, this is passed on to the relevant prison governor for decision. 

The governor can review the investigation and ultimately agree or disagree with the result. The governor can also, in certain circumstances, hand it over to a colleague governor to follow up on it.

If a decision is accepted, the governor then begins a disciplinary process. In the case of an upheld category A complaint, this process could lead all the way to a serious suspension or even dismissal.

These matters are autonomous to governors. The corporate end of the Irish Prison Service does not nominally have any function in the outcome of complaints. 

As one senior figure familiar with the process put it: “The IPS is supposed to effectively be the postman in cases like this. They receive the report from the investigator and pass it on to the governor in question.” 

That did not happen in dealing with this complaint. The IPS received the investigator’s report in late November 2019. It was not forwarded to the relevant governor until early August. It is inexplicable why the report was not passed on immediately.

Once received by the governor of Portlaoise, he passed the issue on to a colleague. This governor agreed with the findings and recommended that there be extra training for the basic-rank officers who were found to have transgressed, and that the governor of Portlaoise remind all staff of the importance of not undermining the work of others.

There was also a decision not to proceed with a disciplinary process at this juncture. The Irish Examiner understands the reasoning behind this decision was “the passage of time” since the complaint.

A range of sources within the prison system who are aware of the outcome have expressed shock at this result.

It doesn’t bear thinking about,” one source said. 

What these fellas were up to, and found to have been up to, was off the Richter scale. 

You don’t mess around with the kind of prisoners that are in A block and you certainly don’t give them the impression that your colleagues are lying to them and are idiots.” 

One of the three senior officers who was targeted in this manner has been promoted. Another is still at work, but he is, according to colleagues, “just about hanging on”.

The third has been out due to work-related illness directly associated with the issues investigated in the complaint. He is initiating legal action against the Irish Prison Service. 

His absence has now been acknowledged as work-related, inferring that the IPS management agrees that it was due to the issues raised in Thompson’s complaint.

The Inspector of Prisons was informed of the complaint and investigation. A spokesperson said the office does not comment on complaints. The office of the Minister for Justice is also aware of what has transpired.

In response to a series of questions, the IPS issued a statement saying it does not comment on complaints. 

The statement did not address a question as to what circumstances could allow for an independent investigator’s report to be retained in headquarters, without any follow-up actions, for eight months.

Questions over role of Prison Officers' Association in running of facilities 

The outcome of the complaint that some prison officers were putting colleagues in danger raises questions about the role of the Prison Officers' Association (POA) in running Irish prisons.

Last year, the director general of the Irish Prison Service, Caron McCaffrey, issued a stern directive to staff about discipline. In it, she stated that there would be sanctions imposed for all breaches of discipline, up to and including dismissal.

Yet one of the most serious examples of a breach of discipline now appears to have resulted in absolutely no sanction. The POA had been opposed to the investigation of the complaint and recorded a protest during the investigation.

The three basic-rank officers involved are members of the POA. Two of the three senior officers who were targeted are not. The third is a member but is not active in the union.

A similar outcome, in which there was no sanction for a major disciplinary breach, was recorded in A Block on May 4, 2018. On that occasion, 15 basic-grade officers walked off the block in protest at certain conditions. A walk-out by prison officers is against all rules for security reasons.

The governor at the time, Ethel Gavin, managed to get other officers to cover for those who walked out.

Afterwards, she determined that those who had left the job should be transferred to a Dublin prison. This level of sanction would be relatively normal for such a transgression.

Negotiations followed between the POA and management in the Irish Prison Service. The outcome was that Ms Gavin was demoted as acting campus governor over Portlaoise and the Midlands. 

John Farrell was then appointed governor of Portlaoise, where he tried to introduce the changes that became such an issue.

The 15 who had walked off the job had to sign a pledge acknowledging they did wrong and that it would not happen again. And that was it.

Ms Gavin, highly regarded theretofore, both inside the prison service and among groups in the penal area, reverted to Midlands governor. She submitted a protected disclosure at the time, setting out how she believed there was gross mismanagement in how the issue had been handled and that her demotion was undertaken to cover up shortcomings in management by the IPS.

Two senior officers who had worked closely with Ms Gavin, neither of whom are members of the POA, were also transferred at the time, but this was later rescinded. One of them also submitted a protected disclosure. The Irish Examiner understands that investigations in both protected disclosures have not been concluded, nearly two and a half years after submission.

Ms Gavin retired earlier this year, reportedly disillusioned over her belief that she was made a scapegoat.

In response to queries about the role of the Prison Officers' Association, its spokesperson said that it had no role whatever in the transfer or sanctioning of senior prison staff.

“This is a matter for the Irish Prison Service and does not involve any level of discussion or related interaction with our organisation," the spokesperson said.

"The Prison Officers' Association deals with industrial relations matters on an ongoing basis, as part of its role; the resolution of these matters has no impact and has never had a connection with the sanctioning of staff.”

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