Mental Health an Issue for All in our Prisons

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Dermot Kelly

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Press Statement from Prison Officers Association, Galway, 28h April 2023


Mental Health an Issue for All in our Prisons


Speaking at the Prison Officers Association Annual Delegate Conference in Galway today, Tony Power, President said, “Research indicates that up to 70% of prisoners have mental health issues ranging from anxiety and low-level depression to Psychosis. Additionally, up to 70% of prisoners have addiction issues. Regretfully, many prisoners are committed to our prisons because of the shortage of beds and accommodation in suitable hospitals or institutions”


“In 2015 the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture(CPT) observed that “Irish prisons continued to detain persons with psychiatric disorders too severe to be properly cared for in a prison setting”. Our members are then asked to deal with ill people on a 24/7 basis without any formal training. The increase in the bed capacity at the Central Mental Hospital has done little to alleviate the problem with many prisoners spending an unacceptable length of time on the waiting list for a bed there. With its policy on overcrowding the Irish Prison Service is contributing to the deterioration of prisoners’ mental health. Prisoners are sleeping on floors in overcrowded cells, often with people they never met before with their heads beside toilets in case they get hit on the head by an officer opening the cell door in the morning. Promoting Positive Mental Health…. I think not!”


“The Minister must be aware that these prisoners pose a continuing challenge and threat to staff and add to the ever-increasing workload of already overburdened prison officers. Once again, our members are going above and beyond the level to which they have been trained and this is totally unacceptable and increases the risk for all involved”


Power continued, “In recent years there has been a growing awareness of the importance of mental health in society in general and the prison environment is no different. In the past we have had colleagues who have suffered with mental health issues and in a number of extreme cases this has tragically led to them taking their own lives. At our Annual Deceased Members mass in 2022 we remembered the 10 serving officers who had passed away since the previous mass and sadly some of those had taken their own lives. Workplace stress is difficult and in a prison environment it is unavoidable, so all involved need support and care”


“Prison officer’s pride ourselves on having an unquestioned spirit of camaraderie. And given the job we must do it is essential that when an officer is on a landing, no weakness is shown. It is a failsafe for Prison Officers.


But it’s not actually a failsafe, because in the past many of our colleagues didn’t move on, because they couldn’t.  The brave face put on at work was a mask and some dealt with the turmoil going on inside their heads by turning to the “bottle” which in turn led to a myriad of other problems. Many were lucky to have spouses, partners and friends who helped them through the tough times, but some were not”


“Society has changed over recent years and it is now generally accepted that “its okay not to be okay” that its “Good to Talk”. So, I just want to remind those here today of some of the services that are available to all prison officers. Inspire is a 24-hour helpline and counselling service, and Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) which is a peer driven program designed primarily to support officers following traumatic incidents. It allows them to talk it through with fellow officers rather than with someone who may not have any concept of what is going on inside that officer’s head. The introduction of the confidential text line is another very positive initiative that has recently been developed”


“All these programs are fully supported by the Union, the management and the Employee Assistance Service and are available to us all. While there has been some uptake there is still, however, a perception of taboo around these issues”


“When we look at Injury on Duty policy, we can see that while progress has been made in relation to Physical Assault there is surprisingly very little provision for psychological trauma and the perception of “Not handling or dealing with a situation well” still prevails.”


‘Minister, this is something that all parties must agree on, that more cognizance is given to the mental health of prison officers and that this should be reflected in the relevant work circulars particularly those in relation to Occupational Injury and Disease. Being a prison officer is commonly regarded as being one of the most stressful careers and we must never lose sight of this fact”


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