Portlaoise: A prison apart in the system again courts controversy

Gardaí and the Health and Safety Authority are investigating an incident at the jail
Portlaoise: A prison apart in the system again courts controversy

Freddie Thompson complained that three prison officers on the A block of Portlaoise prison were constantly undermining three senior officers and their work.

The investigations into an incident in Portlaoise Prison by both the gardaí and the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) draw attention once more to issues at the facility. 

Portlaoise has been at the centre of some major controversies, going back to when it housed subversives. Those days are long gone, but the prison remains something apart within the system.

As first reported in the Irish Examiner in September 2020, the current matter came to the surface in May 2019 when the gangland figure Freddie Thompson made a complaint to the governor. 

Thompson is serving a life sentence for murder since 2018.

He complained that three prison officers on the A block of the prison were constantly undermining 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”.

One of the senior officers subsequently told external investigator John Naughton that when he started on A 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.”

On completing his report, Mr Naughton found that it was “undeniable that some officers were making comments to deliberately try to undermine the work” of one of the senior officers. 

He concluded: “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 gardaí are now investigating whether anything of a criminal nature was at issue arising out of Mr Naughton’s report. 

Detectives from Portlaoise have already interviewed one of the senior officers who were targeted by their junior colleagues.

The investigation by the HSA is of a different nature but potentially even more serious for the prison service. 

The authority is investigating whether as a result of what occurred, and how it was handled, there was any breach of Section 8 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2005, which obliges employers with a duty of care to employees.

In this respect, the Irish Prison Service (IPS) acted correctly in handing the matter over to an external investigator. 

Where the IPS management in Longford has a problem is in how it dealt with the Naughton report.

Once Mr Naughton furnished Longford with the report, it should have been passed onto the governor of Portlaoise for action. 

Instead, it remained in Longford for eight months. When eventually passed on, the governor handed it to a colleague, who ruled that too much time had passed for any serious sanction to be imposed. 

The only sanction was to be attendance at a workshop. It is unclear what kind of a workshop could educate prison officers on not disparaging colleagues in front of dangerous criminals.

The failure of the IPS to properly invoke discipline over such a serious matter could turn out to be an issue for the HSA. 

The authority will have to determine whether a workplace can be categorised as safe if no real sanction is applied following a major incident. 

Under the Health and Safety Act, prosecutions can be pursued for breaches, with provision for maximum penalties of €3m, two years in prison, or both.

Last week, investigators from the HSA arrived in Portlaoise by appointment, but the Irish Examiner understands the investigators were not furnished with the Naughton report. 

A spokesperson for the IPS denied that the investigators were refused access to the report. He said the IPS is engaging with the HSA over the provision of relevant documents.

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