Presidential Address to the 64th Annual Delegate Conference, Kilkenny, 5th May 2011

May 5, 2011

Delegates, on behalf of the National Executive Council I would like to welcome you all to our 64th Annual Delegate Conference in New Park Hotel here in Kilkenny. To Councillor Mr Martin Brett, the Mayor of Kilkenny- on behalf of Conference may I express our gratitude for the warm welcome for us today and to compliment you on your opening address which was very enjoyable indeed. I would also like to welcome our new Minister for Justice Equality and Defence, Mr Alan Shatter, T.D. I congratulate you on your appointment to this important Office. I sincerely hope that we can have a good and constructive working relationship, as we have done in the past, and one which allows us to express our views directly to you and vica versa. You may have some people along the corridors of power who may advocate otherwise, don’t listen; we are here to do business. We want to have good working relationships with you and your Officials – but let me assure you – this has proven difficult in the past. To our trusted colleagues from the Scottish, the British Prison Officers Associations and EUROFEDOP, you are most welcome. I hope you find the few days a worthwhile and enjoyable experience. At this time it is appropriate we remember our five colleagues who have passed on throughout the year, in particular Mr PJ Doran, who was a member of our National Executive Council and who served this Union so well. Minister, the topics to which I am going to refer have been placed before your predecessors and your most Senior Officials at previous Conferences but regrettably we have not been heard. I welcome the opportunity to express our views to you here today, because the situation on a number of fronts is critical and requires your urgent attention.

New Beginning

Minister, Colleagues, and guests, you are all no doubt aware of the actions of successive recent Governments, which have led to massive reductions in our pay and conditions of service. Minister, I am sure you have learned from your briefings since your appointment that the Service overall is on life support, strapped for funding and modernisation in many areas and places. Some people would say that the Prisons Service today is only a learning ground for criminality and unfortunately there is some justification for such a negative view. All stakeholders must acknowledge the high level of repeat offenders in the criminal system. We all must wake up and smell the coffee and realise, that all is not what it should be. Through no fault of the Staff, the Service has been neglected in recent years and this must be addressed if we are to have a Prison system of which we can all be proud. You now have a chance Minister to make your mark and rescue a Service, which once had the potential to be at the cutting edge and which now unfortunately is facing serious challenges. As President I want to make it absolutely clear that from this day on we as an organisation, as a workforce of proud civil servants are taking no more. We will not accept any more pay cuts, we will not accept antiquated conditions, and we are certainly taking no more excuses or blame for the economic crisis, which we didn’t create.

To see a situation recently where one person received a 3 million Euro annual salary from Government funds, is simply breathtaking – and then to see the Irish Prison Service withdraw a canteen service, which provided hot food for Prison Officers, is deplorable. Take back the 3 million and all such payments and leave Prison Officers alone. And Minister, we ask that all options are explored in resolving this catering problem. It is our preferred option that this area be utilised for work and training purposes and local tender could also be examined. Over the last two/three years Prison Officers have taken a reduction of income on average of about 15% by way of Pay Cuts, Pension Levies – before universal social charges and the like. All new Recruit Prison Officers now have the hardship of a further 10% reduction in salary and have much less favourable pension arrangements. It’s hard to imagine why any Government would not want to adequately reward young Prison Officers when we consider the vital and difficult work they do on behalf of society and the State. We fully support your Governments decision to restore the minimum wage; it was an honourable thing to do. We now must now demand that your Government continue and restore the pay of the lower paid Public Servants, including Prison Officers, upon achieving verifiable savings through the Transformation Agenda under the terms of the Croke Park Agreement. It is the honourable thing to do.

Prison Officers are charged with looking after those who the Judiciary have encarcerated, people who society no longer want to see on our streets. We are then charged with the responsibility of rehabilitating these people, which we are endeavouring to do, if the services and resources were available. We welcome your recent acknowledgement that prisons are over crowded; despite the denials over the years from some of your current close advisers. Overcrowding, Violence, Assaults, intimidation- these are the realities of a Prison Officers working life. Minister I want to put you, your Department, and indeed your Government on notice that we the Prison Officers Association are more determined than ever and we are taking no more. Your Government had its five-point plan, now we have ours. We are vigorously and tirelessly going to pursue through every available avenue, all of the following:

– The protection / enhancement of pay and conditions of service for our members, – The creation of a safe working envoirment – We are going to pursue every reasonable option for the eradication of Overcrowding and the introduction of incentivised enhanced regimes for prisoners, using the skill of prison officers in a more constructive fashion – We are going to pursue the provision of Facilities and dedicated Spaces to cater for disruptive and violent Prisoners – And not least we are going to pursue the provision of fair procedures for Staff in the event of accusations of any kind.

Economic Crisis or not Minister, the welfare of Prison Officers is our priority and I make no apology for such sentiments.

Overcrowding

Minister, for as far back as I can remember overcrowding has been like a noose around the Prison Service neck. Your predecessors closed Fort Mitchell, the Curragh and they even closed Shanganagh Castle, which was the only open centre for juvenile offenders. I know such actions are hard to comprehend but as a consequence young offenders are now being placed in adult institutions, which flies in the face of all expert opinion not to mention the fact that such actions are in direct contravention of the United Nations Convention on the rights of the Child. Minister, within the entire prison system today there is the provision of nine cells for the accommodation of offenders who are regarded as mentally ill or mentally challenged. Within the entire prison system today there are only nine spaces/cells in where a detox programme is available for those who wish to come off drugs. All others who wish to come off drugs must try to do so within confines of a drug environment.

Within the Service today there are on a daily basis in excess of 400 Prisoners on protection. There are quite simply insufficient resources and facilities to cater for such numbers. And Minister when we have Overcrowding where the bully and the drug pusher can operate, pressurising the vulnerable, you have an environment where rehabilitation is virtually impossible. Indeed your Staff, our members should be complemented on their professionalism in such circumstances. I can assure you that we as an Organisation are not going soft on crime but it is ludicrous to say that almost 7,000 people were sent to Prison for the non-payment of fines, despite the adoption Fines Act earlier this year. You have the current figures for each Prison at your disposal with but with projected figures suggesting that the total in custodial care set to reach 6000 in the not too distant future, it is essential that decisive action be taken.

Violence

A feature of overcrowding is violence within our Prisons. In prisons across the state the level of violence whether it is prisoner on prisoner or prisoner on staff has continued to grow at an alarming rate with hardly a week passing without stabbings, assaults or worse having taking place. Within the last two weeks, there were three Officers injured in Mountjoy, one sustaining a broken nose, one Officer injuring his shoulder so severely that the Surgeon couldn’t diagnosis the injury as the swelling was so severe. The third officer had injuries to his chest and face. Last weekend there was a savage attack on a young Prison Officer in Wheatfield Prison, which resulted in the Officer being hospitalised. The social and cultural profile of those in custody is widely accepted. Young, poorly educated people coming from a subculture in which crime and violence are deeply rooted and as in society the gang culture within our Prisons is widespread. The Prisons Chaplains, published in their report in November 2010, their grave reservations with regard to the levels of violence in our Prisons today. The CPT, who inspects prisons on behalf of the Council of Europe, has stated that three of our Prisons Mountjoy, Limerick, and St Patricks are unsafe both for Prisoners and Staff.

The consequences for Staff where violence, intimidation, danger and tension are part of the daily experience are very real and cannot be underestimated. Isolation, resulting from situations which are completely different to ordinary life, incomprehension from family and friends, demotivation, conflict with colleagues of a higher rank, stress and burn –out or lack of real interest in their profession are all to prevalent within the prison service today. The control of our Prisons and the welfare of our members are both at stake and we must be given the resources, the support of Prison Management and the Judiciary to tackle this issue before somebody else becomes the latest victim of serious violence. Minister, as a matter of urgency, additional Prison Spaces, as we have seen in other jurisdictions and not just beds, needs to be sourced. Non-custodial options also need to be developed, the Fines Act needs to be implemented in full and the Criminal Justice (community service amendment) Bill 2011 needs to be enacted. We fully agree with the CPT recommendation that as a matter of urgency the Irish Authorities vigorously pursue multi-faceted policies designed to put an end to overcrowding in our Prisons and to this end we urge you to act immediately. It’s incumbent on me as President to call on you and your Government to devise and implement immediately policies that will effectively deal with overcrowding and the related violence in our prisons.

Transformation Agenda

Under the terms of the Croke Park Agreement, like all other public and civil service Unions, we are engaged in a process of reform of the Public Service, specifically for the propose of protecting our current levels of pay into the future. At such times of economic hardship this is an onerous task and it should not be lost on you Minister that we as an organisation were one of the first Unions to engage constructively on our commitments within the terms of the Croke Park Agreement. One such example is the opening of the new accommodation block at Wheatfield Prison housing 174 inmates where the incentivised sentence management regime was introduced, a major development, which has the capacity to provide a much enhanced penal system. Last year your predecessor Mr Dermot Ahern opened the new E block to great aplomb. There were Media figures and Officials of every kind in attendance. But alas, only months later, like before, similar to other initiatives in the past the scheme has not been supported or driven by Prison Management. Local management are failing to embrace this new way of thinking, with little changes that wouldn’t be found in every other landing in any other Prison. There is no incentive or reward for good or productive behaviour for the offender. This will, if left unchanged, lead to collapse of this initiative. To top it all, Minister, we have recently become aware that the Irish Prison Service is proposing that all the cells in this new Block which was supposed to be the vision for the future, are now to be doubled up. Double capacity, the “stack ‘em and rack ‘em” policy again.

The Prison Officers Association has always embraced change; in fact on many occasions we have been the driver of such change. To that end as the driver of change we brought our National Executive Council to the McGilligan Prison in Northern Ireland to experience for themselves the benefits of the enhanced scheme in operation. We also invited the Manchester Prison Management team and Staff Representatives to address our National Executive Council on the benefits of progressive incentivised regimes both from the Managements and Staff point of view. Minister, neither of us can lose the opportunity to change the entire culture within the penal system. We cannot continue to try and drag Prison Management away from policies of simply warehousing Prisoners. We must strive for a new way forward, new ideas and policies for each location. Your Staff, our members want the concept of a safer and worthwhile professional experience. I call on you Minister, with your Governments fresh mandate to drive this progressive agenda forward thus providing an effective and modern Prison Service into the 21st Century.

PFOC

Minister in July 2005 we agreed with your predecessor on the introduction of an Annualised Hours Agreement, the first of its kind in the entire civil service. Like any agreement of such magnitude its operation needs to be monitored closely. For this purpose the Labour Relations Commission provide assistance with its facilitation. However the continued practice of local Management ignoring agreements reached with your officials and the continued practice of local Management for their own ends refusing to recognise or implement rulings of the Commission only serves to undermine our agreement and allow Management to pursue working practices which are antiquated and dysfunctional to say the least. Such ignorance or flagrant disregard is indicative of the inability of Management to manage the system. Again prior to the expiry of this quarter, with weeks left, the additional hours for some of our largest Prisons such as the Midlands, Mountjoy, and Cloverhill have been exhausted. As a result there was insufficient Staff to man the Prisons, which is a very dangerous situation to say the least. This is completely unacceptable to this organisation.

It is ludicrous but factual to say that the IPS reneged and refused to implement nationally our agreement on the use of pooled hours, which can assist where there is a high demand on resources, simply because the money that would be required to pay the Staff was spent elsewhere. Croke Park Agreement /Transformation agenda or not Minister: the health and safety of our members is at stake. How can we possibly run an effective service, with diminishing resources, broken agreements and a zero acknowledgement of the challenges that Prison Officers have to face? Minister none of us want Industrial Unrest, but the future remains uncertain if the management of the Additional Hours system is not sufficiently addressed in the immediate future.

Accusations Against Staff

The Irish criminal justice system is built on the concept of people being dealt with by fair and just procedures. I am sure all present here today agree with due process. The Prison Officers Association has recently become aware that new procedures are soon to be introduced for prisoners to make complaints if they believe they have been mistreated in Prison. We believe that correct procedures should be in place for this purpose, however Minister you must ensure that such procedures have sufficient and adequate safeguards for the protection of prison staff where such complaints are vexatious in nature. Where it has been established that an allegation is vexatious or mischievous in nature, the full rigours of the law in terms of the Prison Rules and the Criminal Justice Act should be brought to bear. Notwithstanding the trauma that can arise for the Officer concerned when such an occurrence takes place, it is imperative that the resources of the State, be they Prison Grades or Garda authorities, is not wasted on such allegations. Can I say that few workers are exposed to the same level of scrutiny and accountability as prison officers. We believe that such protection for Prison Staff is essential for all stakeholders to have confidence in such a policy.

Code of Discipline

In 1996 Statutory Instrument 289 of 1996, the Prison (Disciplinary Code for Officers) Rules 1996 was introduced. This is what I can only describe as an appalling policy document. These rules were meant to:

– Provide an agreed clear and structured procedure to deal with disciplinary issues

– Ensure that officers against whom allegations are made are dealt with in a fair and equitable manner

– Provide an adequate means by which impropriety can be dealt with effectively and the highest standards of conduct can be maintained

These Rules have achieved none of the above objectives. Since their introduction the number of cases to the Courts is now in double figures. The POA welcomes the fact that we recently received correspondence from the IPS containing a new draft Code of Discipline and we will forward our observations. We acknowledge the amount of work that must have gone into this draft, however, surely it would be easier to implement the Civil Service Disciplinary Code, which has already been tried and tested.

Minister, I ask on behalf of all of our members also your staff, working in today’s Prison Service that our views in this regard are listened to and that fair procedures for our members are introduced.

Eugene Dennehy

Delegates on the 31st of December last year, the Prison Officers Association lost one of its great resources, the great mia Dennehy. After 33 years service the majority of which were served representing our members in one capacity or another from local rep to Chairperson of the Mountjoy branch, President of the POA, and Deputy General Secretary. Eugene has for his own personal reasons decided to retire and hand the reins over to another southerner, namely Mr Jim Mitchell from Co. Cork. It is probably the first time in many years that the County of Cork ever got anything from the County of Kerry. It is difficult to explain or to encapsulate the contribution Eugene has made not just to our organisation but also to our member’s personal lives, from the house calls in the avenue, from his helpful approach on the job. From the constant phone calls, day or night, Eugene was always there. Eugene on behalf of Conference and indeed the entire Membership can I thank you for your contribution to this Union and to wish you, your wife, Marie and your family the very best for the years that lie ahead.

Conclusion

Delegates the task of this Union for the coming year will be to ensure the retention of our pay, our rosters and our conditions of service. I know as a consequence of the economic collapse and the subsequent arbitrary decisions of Government, some members are asking themselves is it worth it being in the Union. Is my money simply going down the drain? Well delegates do you really think in these difficult and unprecedented times that members would feel more secure with their jobs or conditions of service if they were not in the Union. Could you imagine for a minute what the agenda would be or what the Management would introduce, if it were not for the Union? No, delegates. I say to those people to stay focused, stay united and support us even more, nobody should leave themselves isolated in their workplace, and the Union weaker for it. It is important to remember the huge gains this Union secured in the past, and as bad as things are now the Country will enter a period of recovery, hopefully sooner rather than later and this strong Union will be in a position to regain the ground that was lost in pay and conditions of service for our members.

To that end delegates it is satisfying to see improved service to Members being rolled out due to the implementation of the recommendations contained within the Cuffe Report, which was adopted at Conference in 2009. I know from experience that the appointment of additional fulltime Officials will definitely enhance the level of service to the Membership, you can see it already, in our participation on the discussions on the transformation agenda, training courses for Branch Representatives, more comprehensive engagement with the IPS on issues of importance and not least the regular site visits of your representatives to each location. I would like to sincerely wish our full time Officers every success on their endeavours in representing the interests of the members into the future. As your President I would like to express my sincere gratitude to you all for the tremendous efforts you have displayed in representing the Membership in your local branch. In these difficult and testing times I know this is not an easy task. I would like also to thank the National Executive members for their commitment to our cause, for which the membership should be truly grateful.

Finally

Minister, as we stated during our meeting earlier this month, the POA will be bringing forward our views on proposals for the future of the Prison Service. With your support, your conviction, along with appropriate resources, you have a work force, whose representative body has the capacity to bring the Prison Service into the 21 Century. We can have an effective and rehabilitative penal system that provides a safe productive working experience for our Members where those in custody can be given every opportunity in their rehabilitation back into society. And as I have already said, Minister you must look at enhanced incentivised schemes for offenders as part of the overall solution. Minister, you have at your disposal a skilled and determined workforce. I ask you to utilise your most valuable resource. And finally Minister, a US political consultant named Bernard Baruch in the 19th Century said and I quote, “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking” Well done with your address today, but one could say, in terms of your success, that hearing what I had to say was more important.

Go raibh maith agaibh go leir

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