CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Speech by Mr. Charles Flanagan, T.D., Minister for Justice and Equality
at the Prison Officers’ Association Conference, Thursday 19th April 2018
President Stephen Delaney, members of the Prison Officers Association National Executive, Branch Representatives, Distinguished Guests, Delegates,
Thank you for the invitation to your annual conference here in Kilkenny. And while I make my first address as Minister for Justice and Equality I want to pay tribute to your outgoing President Stephen Delaney who is making his 8th and final address today. Stephen, I know, has served as President of the POA since his election in 2010.
Stephen of course has a long history of representing prison officers. He became a branch representative back in 1995 and as many of you will know, he comes from a family which has a proud tradition of representation. His father, Stephen Snr, held the position of General Secretary of the POA and his brother Tom is also a National Representative.
So Stephen, I would like to thank you for your commitment both to the Irish Prison Service and to the colleagues you have represented.
And to both you and your colleagues, can I begin by stressing how important it is for me to get this opportunity to address your conference. That’s because it gives me an opportunity to thank you and all our prison staff for your work on behalf of the community that we all serve. Not that I need to come to a conference like this to meet many of you. You are a group which I know well from my constituency. And so not long after my appointment as Minister I met with the National Officers of your Association. I felt it was important to hear at first hand you views on the issues facing the Service. We had a good and frank engagement and it was very beneficial.
Your work is challenging and important and in many respects goes unseen by the wider community but is not unrecognised, especially by myself and my colleagues in Government, who value highly what all prison staff do, on a daily basis.
And so first, can I say that I am glad that as you are doing that work, you are beginning to see improvements in your pay. We have successfully come through a severe economic crisis and because of the implementation of the Public Service Stability Agreement, things are getting better. I know all staff benefited from a 1% increase in January this year, and that over the lifetime of the deal, all will see further significant pay rises. That of course, is very welcome.
Welcome too, the restoration of the Rent Allowance to all new entrants. That happened last year, when, on foot of an agreement between the Irish Prison Service and the Prison Officers Association, sanction was received from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I welcome that, and also the amalgamation of the Allowance into the basic rate of pay which I believe will also bring significant benefits.
In terms of numbers, it is good to see new people joining your ranks. 85 new Recruit Prison Officers joined the Service in 2017, and after a further recruitment drive by the Irish Prison service earlier this year, I understand that over 200 additional Recruit Prison Officers will enter training.
These officers will of course be a welcome addition, but while they can bring a fresh perspective to the role, they will still have much to learn - from you, the experienced staff, who have a wealth of knowledge, developed over years of dedicated service. You have an important role to play in guiding and mentoring them to follow the proud tradition of excellent service given by those who have walked the landings of our prisons before them.
As to more formal training, I am delighted that the capacity to train new officers has been doubled by the opening of a new satellite Training Centre in the West Dublin Campus and also that a large redevelopment and enhancement of the Prison Service College in Portlaoise is underway to support the training and development of all prison staff.
It is of course vital that all, both new recruits and current officers, are trained to the highest international standards and that is why I welcome the intention, that each new Recruit Prison Officer will complete the remodelled Higher Certificate in Custodial Care (HCCC) which is accredited by Waterford Institute of Technology, and that existing staff will benefit from new training through the delivery of 2 days of continuous professional development for those based in Dublin, Portlaoise and Shelton Abbey. This training will ensure that staff have the competence and knowledge to do their job, that they continue to develop their skills, and that, as a consequence, the safety of all who live and work in our prisons can be ensured.
Because safety is vital. Be in absolutely no doubt that the safety and wellbeing of prison staff is of paramount importance to me and to the management of the Irish Prison Service. Indeed as you know, an independent review of assaults on prison staff was carried out by the State Claims Agency in 2016, and the Prison Service is continuing to implement its recommendations.
Those recommendations included the introduction of new Use of Force Policy and the establishment of specialised Control and Restraint Teams in each prison. Positions on these teams were advertised locally and training will commence in June.
The introduction of batons, body armour, body-worn cameras, and conducted energy weapons (CEW) were not recommended however and so they are not being progressed by the Irish Prison Service.
Now I am aware that you have raised concerns about the reporting by the Irish Prison Service on the instances of assault against prison staff. And it is correct that the manner in which assaults figures are being collated has changed in recent years but this has been done to improve the accuracy of data. Previously data was collected in an ad-hoc manner with no consistency with regard to the returns from the various prisons.
The Prison Service is committed to ensuring that the data it provides is accurate and the best available and the Service would never wish to understate the level of risk to staff. But the Service must report on assaults within the definition of an assault and the figures do report on those occasions when an officer was directly assaulted by a prisoner, though not all the incidents recorded in the 104 assaults in 2017 resulted in an injury to the officer which resulted in an absence from work. Aside from direct assaults though, there are, of course, other occasions when staff are injured in the line of duty and the Prison Service recognises this. I believe there is additional data to support that. For example, I understand that according to statistics there were 117 instances in 2017 where an injury on duty which led to an absence from work.
I know too, that to further boost available data, the Prison Service is currently developing a use of force recording system which when operational will provide an additional bank of data for analysis and reporting and I am sure you will agree this is an important initiative.
And so to look at the current data – according to it, there were 104 recorded acts of violence by prisoners against prison staff in 2017 - that was an increase of 1% on the previous year. There were meanwhile 417 recorded acts of assault by prisoners on other prisoners, a reduction of 27%.
While the reduction in reported inter-prisoner violence is to be welcomed, the fact that decreases in staff assaults are not being seen, does of course, remain a concern
I wish to assure you that neither I, as Minister for Justice and Equality, nor the Director General of the Irish Prison Service accept that any act of violence against a prison officer is ever deemed acceptable. It is our firm view that any assault on a member of prison staff should be subject to disciplinary action. We are in agreement on this issue, that sanctions up to an including the loss of remission should be imposed if appropriate. I can confirm that the Service will be conducting a review of the P19 or disciplinary system this year and will be engaging with your Association in this regard.
It is my firm view that that any criminal act carried out within our prisons, including an assault on a staff member, should be reported to An Gardaí Síochána for investigation and prosecution. Garda liaison officers are in place in all prisons to assist in this regard. Such prosecutions are happening and I note only recently a report from court where a prisoner received additional consecutive sentences for assaulting a prison officer when in custody. And in terms of prisoners who may be involved in such assaults, I welcome that work is continuing on the development of the Violently Disruptive Prisoner Unit in the Midlands Prison. It will open in mid-2018.
It is also vitally important of course that staff who are subject to an assault or who witness incidents in our prisons are given the necessary support afterwards.
To that end, I know the Employee Assistance Programme plays a key role, particularly in supporting those who have been injured on duty. The programme has 3 full-time national Employee Assistance Officers while at local prison level, staff have access to a network of almost fifty voluntary Staff Support Officers.
Another service which I very much welcome is the Independent Counselling one, launched in October 2016 and provided by Inspire Workplaces. The feedback from staff regarding it, is I believe, very positive.
But sometimes there is a need for more. And so I want to acknowledge the Serious Physical Assault Scheme for prison staff – a scheme for which the Director General sought and obtained sanction in 2015. It allows for access to a higher level of sick leave and it is a considerable benefit for the small number of staff affected. The Scheme was introduced in July 2015 as an interim arrangement pending the completion by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform of a full review of Occupational Injury or Disease in the Public Service. That review has now commenced and a working group has been established, on which the Irish Prison Service is represented.
Of course, gangland crime continues to be a huge issue in our community. It is a major challenge that is being met head on by the Gardaí and I wish to compliment them for their successes. Such successes however, lead to further challenges being faced by the Irish Prison Service - as more gang members are committed to custody.
But dealing with gangs or factions in custody is nothing new to the Irish Prison Service and I would like to acknowledge your work here. I know you and your management must ensure that the various factions are kept apart, and that, as far as possible, members of criminal groups do not have influence over either other inmates or criminal activities outside. And so management has the authority to remove prisoners from the general population and relocate them to areas where their influence is lessened.
Their influence will also be lessened by officers knowing what is going on… and of course prison staff also gather intelligence on members or potential gang members. I welcome the high level of contact maintained on a daily basis between the Service and An Garda Síochána to discuss security issues including the operation of criminal groupings.
Drugs, and their availability in prisons is another issue which will always be a priority issue for the Irish Prison Service. I know the Service continues to work to prevent drugs and other contraband from entering our prison and the work of the Operational Support Group is hugely important in this area.
We have seen, in 2017, an increase in the seizure of contraband in our prisons. The security initiatives undertaken by your colleagues in the Operational Support Group have prevented prisoners from exerting inappropriate influence over other persons and have made it more difficult for them to engage in illegal activities while in prison.
And so I welcome the fact that as those involved in the trafficking of contraband have increased their efforts to subvert our security measures so too has the OSG redoubled their efforts to disrupt the flow of contraband.
We need too though to disrupt substance misuse. And so the development of a range of programmes, support services and through-care options for prisoners demonstrating a commitment to addressing their substance misuse is equally important.
For those who do use however, trends indicate the changing pattern of drug use and an increasing use of newer drugs of abuse, including Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS). NPS use is a significant challenge in other jurisdictions and in that regard the IPS is working closely with international colleagues to develop appropriate arrangements for the operational and clinical management of those who use such drugs should it become prevalent in the Irish System.
Meanwhile however, with regard to the Irish system as it is, I wish to conclude by again offering my thanks to all prison staff for the work you do on behalf of society. Working with management you have been involved in the implementation of many positive developments within the Service over the past number of years…developments which have resulted in a prison system better able to meet its primary objectives of safe secure custody and rehabilitation for those in your care.
I thank you again for your invitation to address you and wish you well for the remainder of your conference.