Michael Clifford looks at one prison officer’s complaints, which were upheld by retired judge William Early, and the prison service’s response.

THE experience of one prison officer in making a protected disclosure is unlikely to engender confidence in the prison service’s capacity to deal with internal criticism.In November 2014, the prison officer — referred to here as “the discloser” — raised concerns about unqualified personnel being awarded jobs in both catering and the staff gym in one of the State’s prisons.

In November 2014, the prison officer — referred to here as “the discloser” — raised concerns about unqualified personnel being awarded jobs in both catering and the staff gym in one of the State’s prisons.

These personnel were appointed ahead of others, including himself, who had earned specialist qualifications. The situation, the discloser claimed, meant that there were dangers attached to both the kitchens and the gym and that the process of appointments resulted in a misuse of exchequer funding.

He took his concerns to the Public Accounts Committee, receiving a reply that it would be investigated.

The Commission for Public Appointments also investigated the case and found that the Irish Prison Service (IPS) “fell short of the standards provided in the code of practice” in how it made appointments. It also stated that “certain candidates were disadvantaged”.

In March 2016, the discloser wrote to the secretary general of the Department of Justice and informed him that his actions in raising these matters came under the conditions of a protected disclosure.

This, he did, because he said he was being bullied and isolated for raising his concerns and now wanted the protection provided for the in the Protected Disclosures Act. (The 2014 act makes it an offence to target any so-called whistleblower who makes a protected disclosure).

Among his complaints of bullying and isolation were:

  • He was not reassigned to the catering area for three years — where he had worked — after he made his initial complaint about untrained workers in the kitchen.
  • He was constantly assigned to work with members much junior to him — he has 23 years experience — and given a staff number ordinarily assigned to junior officers in order to “belittle his standing among fellow staff members”.
  • He was not interviewed following two violent incidents in the prison, despite being the chief officer in charge of the area. One officer sustained a broken ankle in the incident and another required 13 stitches. A subsequent review found: “It is quite extraordinary that a primary witness to a serious assault was not interviewed.”
  • The department’s internal audit unit investigated the discloser’s claims and found that his concerns didn’t constitute a protected disclosure and that he hadn’t suffered penalisation at work.

The discloser appealed the decision. An external reviewer, retired judge William Early, was asked to look at the case.

He delivered his report earlier this year, finding that the discloser’s complaints did constitute a protected disclosure and that “he has suffered bullying and isolation, and was denied career opportunities”.

Early also found that the discloser’s correspondence “indicates a man who is intelligent and sincere and who has acted in good faith throughout. It is the opinion of the external reviewer that the discloser has provided a valuable service to the IPS in pointing out deficiencies in its operations and in recommending improvements”.

Following that decision, the IPS head Michael Donnellan wrote to the discloser apologising for his treatment and assuring him the concerns would be addressed.

The discloser is currently taking an action against his employer for the bullying and isolation which he says he has suffered, a claim that was upheld by retired judge Early.

On the opening day of the action at the Work Relations Commission on Tuesday, representatives for the IPS have now claimed that there was no protected disclosure, and therefore, no bullying or isolation.

So the head of the IPS has apologised for the treatment meted out to an employee following his protected disclosure, while another representative of the IPS is submitting to the Work Relations Commission that there was no protected disclosure.

Two members of the Public Accounts Committee are now in possession of a file on this matter and it is expected to feature at the committee hearing in the coming months.

The WRC is due to reconvene in the first week of July.

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