Address by Mr Simon Harris, Minister for Justice – Annual Prison Officers Association Conference, Galway, 27th April 2023.

April 27, 2023

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President Power, members of the Prison Officers Association National Executive, Branch Representatives, Distinguished Guests, and Delegates.

I am delighted to be here with you in Galway and I appreciate the opportunity to address your annual conference.

I want to start by thanking you and the wider membership of the Prison Officers Association for your commitment to public service and to assure you these are not empty words.

I’m not sure how much the wider public understands the breath of the job you do and the importance of the role you play.

For most, their understanding of what life inside a prison is like probably comes from a favourite TV series or film.

While that understanding may be limited, for those serving a custodial sentence, for their family and friends – and of course your family and friends – they all know the job you do is far more than most TV portrayals.

It is challenging.

No two days are the same.

And you wear many hats as you go about your work and engage with people – many of whom are vulnerable.

Some of whom are very ill.

And most of whom are at a low point in their lives.

It is clear to you, to them and to their families, that a prison is a work environment that is very different to any other.

It requires a high degree of dedication, compassion, patience and a sense of humanity.

When I spoke earlier this year at the graduation of the newly qualified prison officers, I spoke about what is needed to maintain good order, safety and security in a prison, and about the role they will play in delivering that.

But I also spoke about how the best prisons are focused on more than just providing a safe, secure and orderly environment.

Prisons that work best, that foster respect and rehabilitation, have an atmosphere of care and respect between those living in prison, and those working there.

It is this additional layer that you bring to the job that creates an environment where people can begin addressing their offending behaviours. One that helps them work on building a better, crime-free, future.

Taking on that responsibility is what makes a lasting impact on the people you engage with every day.

Members of the public, unless they have first-hand experience, will likely tell you prison is where you go if you commit a crime, where you go to serve your sentence.

But prisons are about more than that – because those who work there do far more than facilitate the serving of a sentence.

Since taking up this role, I have visited a number of prisons and it is undeniable that one of the most important and impactful aspects of your job, is your daily interactions with the people in custody.

When we hear the stories of people who have been to prison and who have turned their lives around, they often speak of the positive impact someone working in the prison had on their lives.

In many ways, your ability to support a person’s rehabilitation is one of the most important roles you carry out, but I know that role can be very difficult.

I was delighted to meet with Karl Dalton, Gabriel Keaveny, Terry Goodson and Mark Morrison from the Prison Officers Association in March.

Having the opportunity to sit with you and hear directly from you about the challenges that you and your members face, was very informative.

Two things really struck me at that meeting as we talked about a number of issues, some of which I’ll refer to in a few moments.

The first is that you didn’t come with a list of problems.

You came with a number of valid concerns and, in most cases, with suggested ways to address them.

This very constructive approach was appreciated.

The second thing that struck me as we talked, was that many of the issues you were raising with me as key concerns for you and your members, were also the key issues that the Director General and her management team had raised with me.

This showed me that everyone across the Prison Service is aligned on what is needed to operate a prison to the highest standard – both in terms of ensuring safety and in terms of their desire to maximise the rehabilitative supports provided.

I have no doubt that you and your members are 100% committed to the job that you do.

That you are focused on being the positive influence on those you care for.

And that you are determined to advocate for a prison system that provides the ancillary services those in custody need to begin to turn their lives around.

One of the key concerns you spoke to me about was the vulnerability of many of the people committed to prison and the severity and complexity of the mental health and addictions issues some present with.

Supporting the Prison Service to manage the needs of people with such issues is vital for the individuals themselves and for the staff of the Service.

I know you treat those in custody who have serious mental illness with compassion and care.

I also know the frustrations expressed about seeing people who are ill and in need of medical care coming into the prison system, often again and again, come from a place of concern for them and for others in your care.

The challenging behaviours of some, in particular those who are unwell – of course impacts on the prison environment as a whole.

It increases the pressure you are under.

It impacts on the safe running of our prisons.

And, it takes resources away from other areas of work.

This is not conducive to creating an environment that facilitates and fosters rehabilitation and reform.

The criminal justice and health systems must work together to support and accommodate people with mental health and addiction challenges in a way that diverts them from the criminal justice system whenever possible and supports them in their rehabilitation and recovery.

Progress has been made in this area over the last year but more is needed.

The report of High Level Task Force established to consider the mental health and addiction challenges of those who come into contact with the criminal justice sector, was published last year and we will soon publish the report of the Health Needs Assessment.

This report, the first of its kind, touches on the full range of areas that feed into healthcare in the prison service, from strengthening healthcare services to improving governance.

It is a practical assessment of what is needed to provide effective healthcare for those within our Prison estate.

Both of these reports are comprehensives pieces of work but their publication is the starting point – the findings and recommendations must be implemented if we are to make sure the right help is available for those who need it.

You advocated for the needs of the individual to be viewed from a healthcare perspective and that is the approach both of these reports take.

My department and Department of Health are committed to working together, and with you, to implement the recommendations of both.

Doing this will create a system that better supports the individual healthcare needs of those in your care and better supports you in your engagement with them.

However, as important as this work is, I know that over-crowding within the system is impacting on you, on the level of services that can be provided, on the environment within which you work, and ultimately, on the rehabilitation opportunities for those in custody.

I want to stop for a moment and acknowledge the size of the challenge faced by our prisons.

In January 2022 the number of people in custody across the prison estate was 3,705.

Last Friday there were 4,571 people in custody with 167 sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

This is not good enough.

It is not good enough for those who go to work in this environment every day.

It is not good enough for those who have the responsibility for managing each prison.

And it is not good enough for the 167 people sleeping on a mattress on the floor or for their cell mates who have little or no room to move about.

I would like to assure you that I understand the enormous challenge this presents for our prisons.

It was very clearly presented to me when I met with the representatives of the Prison Officers Association and it has been very clearly laid out for me by the Director General.

What was also made clear to me is the valid expectation that the prison population will continue to increase further over the coming years.

The meeting I had with the Prison Officers Association gave me a really good understanding of the realities of your day to day experiences.

I know there is no silver bullet to fix this overnight but that doesn’t mean we don’t start working on it now.

I have engaged extensively with officials in my department and in the Irish Prison Service in relation to how we might address this in the short, medium and longer-term.

I recently approved a number of measures aimed at reducing pressures in the system through the use of different schemes, and I have expedited the review of sentence remission.

And we have approved the Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform 2022-2024.

The objective is to ensure those who commit serious crimes are held accountable, a number of actions under this review may have appreciable impact on the size of the prison population, including:

  • considering legislation to require a trial judge to first consider non-custodial and community based sanctions before considering a custodial sentence during the sentencing part of a trial; and outline a number of effective, evidence-supported community-based alternative sanctions
  • improving community service options for the judiciary
  • a review of the Community Support Scheme and the Community Return Programme
  • implementing the recommendations of the High Level Task Force on Mental Health and Addiction; and
  • a review of the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Act 2014

But I know this is not enough.

This will not sufficiently deal with the longer term situation.

We, as a government, are continuing to progress policies aimed at diverting people away from the criminal justice system where appropriate.

But again, I know this important work will only take us so far in reducing numbers in prison.

I fully agree with the points made by the representatives of the Prison Officers Association, and, by the Director General, that we have to be future focused and start, not only planning for increasing capacity going forward, but actively working to do so.

The new prison development at Limerick Prison and the refurbishment of the training unit at Mountjoy, are of course welcome.

But again, on their own, these will not provide sufficient capacity going forward.

We must prepare for a period of significant population growth and ensure we have the capacity to meet the needs of the criminal justice system.

This will be against a backdrop of increased investment in our Gardaí and courts system as well as new legislation and longer sentences, including for domestic, sexual and gender based violence.

If we are committed to having, and sustaining, prisons that create an environment where people can address their offending behaviours and where the focus is on working with them to build a better future, we have to start now.

We are investing in recruiting more prison officers but if we are to retain them, if they are to be able to work positively with those in their care, then we have to ensure an environment that facilitates this.

People sleeping on mattresses in overcrowded cells is not this environment.

While there are no quick solutions, I agree that we need to look at the bigger picture and plan for what is coming in the next 2, 4, 6 years and beyond.

Thanks to you and to the officials I have engaged with from HQ, I have a really clear understanding of the challenge faced and of the need to act now.

That is why, this week I brought a memo to cabinet outlining the issues – both in terms of the scale of the problem already faced and to start consideration of what needs to be done to progress longer-term capital solutions for it.

Working with IPS, I have identified 4 short-term capital projects that could deliver over 400 prison spaces over the next 5 years.

This would provide accommodation for a minimum of 620 additional prisoners.

The locations of these projects are Castlerea, Cloverhill, Midlands, and Mountjoy Prisons.

In Castlerea, it is proposed to develop 25 additional prisoner houses, each providing accommodation for 4 prisoners, potentially providing additional spaces for 100 prisoners.

In Cloverhill, the development of a new prison block for 110 cells in a “G wing” located between the existing A and B Wings has the potential to accommodate up to 190 additional prisoners.

A new 100 cell “F Wing” in the Midlands prison would also have the potential to accommodate up to 180 prisoners.

The uninhabitable Separation Unit is Mountjoy is earmarked for demolition in 2023 and, in its place we can potentially build a four storey, 100 cell block which could accommodate 150 prisoners.

I will now engage with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on this with a view to progressing an agreed schedule of capital builds across the estate.

But I accept the point you made to me when we met – even if we start building tomorrow, it will be at least 24-36 months before new accommodation comes on stream.

We need to find other solutions to ease the current accommodation crisis.

The Irish Prison Service has begun preparing a follow on prison population management plan, which, I understand is expected to include a proposal to establish a multi-stakeholder taskforce to address the current accommodation crisis.

This, among other proposals will bring the focus onto what further immediate actions can be taken to manage the accommodation pressures as we progress plans to expand capacity through capital projects.

I know you want our prisons to be positive environments, for those accommodated and those working there.

And this requires increased investment not just in the estate, but also in staffing.

For a number of years staffing numbers have not increased in the IPS but under Budget 2023, a €6.5 million additional staffing package was secured.

I know there are particular areas of your work that are very resource intensive and that the escort function you took during COVID, is one such area.

To maintain this function, increased staffing is needed. This is something that has been committed to under Budget 2023.

Recruitment is challenging for most organisations but I want to assure you that we will work with you, both to recruit 260 prison officers this year and to put in place a system that facilitates a steady stream of graduates going forward.

Something else you raised with me is the issue of assaults on staff.

It is never acceptable for Prison Staff to be assaulted in the course of their work.

I know that when such events happen, the circumstances around it are examined with a view to ensuing the protection and safety of all going forward.

Sadly, it seems, that in a number of instances the perpetrator of an assault is a person suffering from an acute mental disorder.

While you work very hard to provide suitable accommodation for these prisoners, both pre admission and post discharge from the Central Mental Hospital, I am on the record as saying there are a number of people in custody with severe and enduring mental illness who should not be there.

You do an incredible job managing these people compassionately, but where a person’s mental health is incompatible with detention in a prison, they need to be cared for in an appropriate therapeutic facility.

I mentioned the High Level Task Force earlier and some their key short-term recommendations, will improve the situation and the management of acutely unwell people in custody.

This includes the establishment of a suitable prison facility for providing care & accommodation for those waiting admission to, or on their transfer back from, the Central Mental Hospital.

By taking a health led approach to dealing with the underlying causes of much of the challenging behaviors you, as Prison Officers, have had to deal with, the implementation of the Task Force recommendations will help reduce the number of assaults.

Many of you here today may indeed have witnessed serious aggressions and assaults, some of you may even have been the victim.

The Director General and I are focused ensuring you have the supports you need if this happens. Supporting staff has been, and will remain a core aim of the Irish Prison Service.

In this regard, I want to commend those of you who work as staff support officers.

Peer to peer support is often the first support offered and the one that people feel most comfortable taking, particularly in the immediate aftermath of an event.

I know many of you will be aware of the results of the recently published Central Statistics Office survey on the prevalence of sexual violence in Ireland.

There is no doubt that many of the figures it revealed are shocking and I am very aware that behind these numbers are real people who have suffered.

Many of the results are devastating – including that 40% of respondents had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, with this figure rising to 52% for women.

Equally as stark and upsetting is that we know from this study that the vast majority knew the perpetrator and that most don’t tell anyone what happened.

Among the things these figures tell us, is that we must continue to be alert to this in every walk of life and we must create environments where people are encouraged to disclose if they have been the victim of any form of violence or abuse.

I know that professionalism and integrity is taught and promoted right from training for new recruits through to each and every rank and grade in the Prison Service and that your code of ethics includes the commitment for each member to support, encourage and facilitate speaking up and reporting wrongdoing at every level in the organisation.

I also know that the Prison Service is taking a proactive approach to this and I welcome the cultural audit planned for later this year.

It will have an important role to play in highlighting any cultural issues in the organisation and in providing a basis for actions to address any that emerge.

I would encourage anyone who has been the victim of any form of violence or abuse, no matter where it happened, to report it and to avail of the supports services and structures that are there to support you, both within the IPS and more generally.

Finally I want to conclude by thanking Karl, Gabriel, Terry and Mark for meeting with me earlier this year for inviting me to join you today.

The insights I obtained from you, and indeed from the Director General, about the work you do and the environment you do it in, have enabled me to engage deeply on a number of the key issues you raised with me.

The memo I bought to Cabinet this week sets out clearly the pressure the system is under and what needs to be done to address it.

The reports of the High Level Task Force and the Health Needs Assessment looks at what is needed when people with health, mental health and addiction issues are committed to prison.

While we are focused on keeping people with such issues out of the prison system whenever possible, one of the things that struck me about the aim of some of the recommendations made by the High Level Task Force, is that they focus on ensuring progress made in relation to mental health and addictions issues in prison, is not lost on release.

This in itself is very telling.

You already do great work with the most vulnerable of people but, if we are to ask you to keep doing this, you need to be better supported to do so.

My department and the Department of Health must work together to provide this support, to cement the health lead, person centric approach taken in these reports.

Investing in the prison estate, investing in the staff that work there, investing in healthcare and investing in rehabilitation opportunities, including education and training, are crucial if we are to have the best prisons.

I am very glad that during my time as Minister for Justice I have been able to raise some of these issues with my cabinet colleagues, present a planned way forward and establish a joint Justice / DFHERIS taskforce to look at what more we can do in relation to education and training in prisons.

Your work, your contribution to the well-being and future of others, and the insights you shared with me have helped me to progress this.

I am grateful to you all for the jobs that you do, for the service that you give and for working with me and my colleagues to advance proposals to make the environment in which you do this better for you, for your colleagues and importantly, better and more progressive for those in your care.

While not everyone might understand the importance that last bit has on helping people turn their lives around and the contribution it makes to the safety and security of our communities, please be assured that it is very much understood and appreciated by everyone in this room and by those in your care.

I wish you well with the rest of the conference.

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