Thank you for inviting me to your annual conference here in Sligo. When you last met in person in 2019, it was the first occasion that Tony (Power) got to address you as the newly elected President. It is incredible that it is almost 3 years later that I’m getting to stand in front of you and wish Tony continued success in his role and I am genuinely delighted to be able to do so. I was also very pleased to have an opportunity to meet in person with John Clinton and your national officers last week and to have the opportunity to listen to the important issues raised.
While I am happy to reflect briefly on some of the issues raised, I also want to take a moment to acknowledge how remarkable the last two years has been for communities across our Island and around the world. Many will look back and wonder how they coped with the way we were asked to live to keep ourselves and each other safe. And many will be able be proud of the help and assistance they gave to others. You certainly should be proud of the role you have played.
Keeping Prisons Safe during the Pandemic
I do think it is worth pausing to briefly recall how unique and significant the challenges presented by the pandemic were for those living and working in the prison environment. I know that it must have been a very worrying time for you and for your families. In the true embodiment of public service, you faced and managed the many challenges presented by the virus.
Your response to the pandemic has been acknowledged both at home and abroad. But success like this does not come without sustained effort from all concerned. You developed new ways of working, of supporting and communicating with prisoners and you brought innovation to the fore. Concern for the safety, welfare, and human rights of those in your care led your response.
I would like to take this opportunity to offer my sincere thanks on behalf of the Government for your ongoing commitment and dedication throughout this difficult time. It is something to be very proud of. In the few minutes I have available this morning, I want to touch on a number of other areas of importance to you, including:
- The pay of prison officers;
- Keeping prison officers and all of those in prison safe;
- Modernisation and staffing
- And to briefly refer to some of my own policy priorities in this area.
As you are aware my colleague Minister McGrath leads on national pay policy and the long standing approach has been to negotiate public pay deals centrally and collectively. This ensures that pay costs are managed in a sustainable and orderly way and in a climate of industrial peace. By and large public pay agreements have delivered on these objectives over the last 12 years.
However, Government acknowledges that current price pressures are presenting challenges and are a source of concern for all public service workers. We must manage the public finances responsibly as we seek to address the multiple challenges we face, including the impact of rising inflation and the conflict in Ukraine.
I am of course aware that ICTU triggered the Review Clause in the Agreement last month and that Minister McGrath has indicated that talks will take place with the public service committee of ICTU. As always, the Government will engage in good faith to reach a mutually acceptable outcome in any discussions.
Assaults on Prison Officers
Ensuring the safe operation of prisons will always be a priority for me and for the Prison Service. No act of violence against any staff member or prisoner will be tolerated. While it’s welcome that assault figures are lower now than pre-pandemic, this has been largely a result of reduced prison numbers and a more restricted regime for prisoners. But this is not a sustainable approach in the longer term. It will not help with rehabilitation and reducing the risk of reoffending. The prison day needs to be maximised and the prison regime managed effectively to ensure that essential services continue to be provided.
Regime Management Plans
The Regime Management Plans are a critical part of ensuring the safe and effective operation of prisons and delivery of services. The Prison Service now has an overarching Regime Management Plan Policy to ensure consistent implementation across the service. Those in prison who engage with services and who take action to address the factors that led to their offending, need to be able to see a clear plan for the management of their sentence and a pathway towards their eventual release. This is now delivered by the Integrated Sentence Management for prisoners serving sentences of over one year in all prisons.
In addition, the Prison Service is working on a new National Prisoner Progression Plan with the aim of maximising the potential of the prison estate while also maximising prisoner access to services. The new Plan will set out the general approach to be adopted for each prisoner cohort. It will provide a progression pathway through the prison system for those in custody to prepare prisoners, to the greatest extent possible, for re-integration. I understand that the Prison Service will be having further engagements with the POA on these Plans in the coming weeks.
Modernisation and staffing
When I met with John earlier this month, among the issues raised were modernisation, including through the use of e-warrants. If the pandemic has shown us one thing, it is the importance of grasping opportunities to use technology to its full advantage. Across the justice sector, we have seen examples of how technology can support our work effectively.
The use of video-conferencing by the Courts Service is just one such example. With the roll-out of the Criminal Justice Operational Hub, I am confident that the Court Lists project will help you to more accurately and promptly know which prisoners need to be present at Court, and when.
I want to put it on the record with you today that I fully support your efforts to improve how you work and increase efficiencies through the use of e-justice tools. I have asked officials in my Department and in the IPS to consider how we might advance the use of e-warrants. To my mind, this is a development on the court list project, and the hub will enable many further similar developments.
Placing the Irish Prison Service on a Statutory Basis
Turning to some of my own policy priorities, I have recently approved proposals for the establishment of the Prison Service on a statutory basis with a non-executive oversight board. Establishing the Prison Service as a statutory body with a board is necessary to bring the governance and support of this critically important agency in line with modern best practice, as set out in the Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies. Taking this important step will, I believe, have a truly transformative effect on the governance of the Prison Service, with commensurate benefits for the penal system.
- cement the identity of the Service as a unified State body.
- add stability and certainty to your operating environment.
- And provide a source of dedicated expert support.
All of this will help to bring a more streamlined, dynamic and modern prison service that is best placed to surmount the challenges that every prison system faces and maximise opportunities for further positive change and reform. Above all, establishing the Prison Service on a statutory basis will be a clear recognition of the central role played by the service in the overall criminal justice system and its status as a key and essential agency of the state. To progress this work, I intend to seek Government approval in the coming period for preparation of the General Scheme of an Irish Prison Service Bill. Assuming Government approval is received, the Scheme will be prepared as quickly as possible and officials will, of course, consult in detail with the POA and other stakeholders as part of the drafting process. I am looking forward to being able to update you in the near future on how this work is progressing.
Mental Health is a particular priority of mine. As prison staff you care for people with serious and often complex issues such as addiction or those who have a high potential for aggression or violence. We know that prison is not the appropriate environment for those with severe and enduring mental illness and addressing this issue is a priority for me. I am pleased that significant progress has been made by High Level Taskforce established to consider these matters. It has engaged with a large number of relevant bodies and civil society bodies and submitted an interim report late last year.
The Chairperson is working to finalise its report, including a high-level implementation plan assigning responsibility and timelines for its recommendations, and I expect to receive these in the next few weeks. In addition to that work, over €2m in additional funding was provided to the Prison Service to improve mental health services under Budget 2022. While I mention funding, I also want to be clear that I intend to seek additional funding in the next Budget with a view to increasing staff number across the prison estate. I know there has been little change in staffing numbers over recent years. As we focus more on providing increased supports and services within our prisons, this is something I am determined we will address.
I couldn’t address you without also mentioning another important milestone in improving the prison estate. The major construction project at Limerick Prison is nearing completion and it is expected to be operational later this year. The design concept for the redevelopment was influenced by best practice in prison design and as such is designed to meet international standards. The progressive approach taken to the design of the female facility encapsulates the principles on creating a safe therapeutic space and supportive regime. When open in just a few months, the new facility will represent a sea change in the standard of accommodation and rehabilitative supports for female prisoners.
As prison officers, you have the ability to change the lives of those in your care. The work that you do can have a positive impact on the future decisions and direction that those entrusted to your care take, not only during their time in custody but also after release. I would like to end my address to you today in the same way that I opened it – by thanking you.
Thank you for the important work that you do. Thank you for keeping people safe throughout the pandemic. Thank you for your commitment and dedication to public service.