Good morning, Delegates,
On behalf of the National Executive Council, I would like to welcome you all to the 2023 Prison Officers’ Association Annual Delegate Conference here in the Galmont Hotel, Galway. It’s taken quite a bit of lobbying on behalf of our delegates to finally get our conference back to this famous city and I can only hope that it won’t be as long before we are back again. I would like to welcome the Minister for Justice, Mr Simon Harris to his first POA Conference, the Director General, Ms Caron McCaffrey, and her officials from the Irish Prison Service. I would also like to extend fraternal greetings to our colleagues from Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, and Europe and to our fellow trade unionists. I also extend a warm welcome to our invited guests, the national media and in particular our delegates who are present here today.
I also wish to extend sympathies to the families of our colleagues Darragh Lydon, Shelton Abbey, Robbie Cosgrove and Peter Govan PSEC, Dave Philpott Branch Chairperson Cork, Darren Darcey Wheatfield and Ken Kok Mountjoy who have passed away since last year’s Annual Delegate Conference. To our members who were victims of serious assaults or serious threats to their safety or involved in other traumatic incidents while carrying out their duties on behalf of the State over the past year, I extend to you the best wishes and support of all present here today. I am also well aware to the devastating effect such crimes have on the families of those affected.
In 2022, the Prison Officers’ Association found itself at a time of major transition. Since last year’s Annual Delegate Conference, our General Secretary of over 22 years, Mr. John Clinton, announced his retirement from his position. John was such a depth of knowledge on all Industrial Relations matters and was such a help to me personally when I took up my position as President of the Association. I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of the entire membership to thank John for his service to the union and wish him a long happy and healthy retirement.
This news followed the announcement just a few weeks earlier by our former Deputy General Secretary, Mr. Jim Mitchell, that he was leaving his position to take up a new challenge with FORSA. Like John, Jim was a fountain of knowledge in all things’ union. The POA’s loss is definitely FORSA’s gain. We wish you well Jim. With each departure there is an arrival and although they might not be totally new in the sense of the word, I believe there are no better people to step into the breach and fill the void left by the two men mentioned previously. I would like to congratulate Karl Dalton and Gabriel Keaveny on their appointments to the positions of General Secretary and Deputy General Secretary respectively and I look forward to continuing to work with you. The union could not be in safer hands. Last year I welcomed our “almost new National Officers” and this year I have to congratulate both Terry and Mark on their meteoric rise to full time National Officers positions. To our new Vice-President, Peter Redmond, and our new General Treasurer, Keith Ryan who took up their positions earlier this year I’d like to welcome you both and I look forward to working with you over the coming years.
The first part of my address I entitled All Change, this part I’m going to refer to as “NO CHANGE”. I remember attending my first conference as a delegate, quite a few years ago now, and listening to the Presidents address to the conference. Little did I know or expect at the time that I would one day address a conference, this is my third time, and end up raising and speaking about so many of the same issues impacting on prison officers, including Staff Safety, Over Crowding, Bullying and Harassment, Staffing Levels and Recruitment, Codes of Discipline and Prisoner Complaints. It is a sad indictment on our employer, past and present, that these are still the issues affecting our members which I must address today. Minister, despite commitments from many of your predecessors on the introduction of Electronic Warrants and Court Centralisation, nothing has happened, nothing. Our members continue to have to wait for a paper warrant to issue then execute the warrant before returning the prisoner to their own prison. This is an unacceptable waste of resources, and we again call on you to address these issues as a matter of priority.
Minister, Last year I stood in front of conference and extoled the virtues of the Regime Management Plan. I pointed out that it was a safe system of work. Safer for staff, safer for prisoners. I outlined the success achieved in one location by correctly implementing a Regime Management Plan but now that management team has moved on the RMP at Wheatfield Prison has faltered. Staff are back supervising prisoners in exercise yards during the day at the expense of structured workshop and educational activities and as a result and understandably we have seen tensions rise. In addition, management at Wheatfield are also failing to implement the supporting Incentivised Regime Policy. Unfortunately Minister, This is mirrored throughout the prison estate.
These breaches of agreement are proven to destabilise the prisons and with reduced services to prisoners come an increase in Prisoner-on-Prisoner assaults and in Prisoner on staff assaults. Figures provided to us by the Irish Prison Service show that prisoner on prisoner assaults and prisoner on staff assaults have both increased by over 50% in the last 12 months. Director General, your failure to deal with these deliberate and knowing breaches of agreement by your management team are putting our members at risk and are depriving them of the safe system of work agreed under building momentum. Last year I called on Minister McEntee to guarantee that she would protect us from rogue governors to ensure compliance with Regime Management Plans which will allow our members to work professionally and deliver the services they are capable of in a safe and secure manner. The Director General has failed to hold any member of her management team responsible for their deliberate and knowing breach of agreements.
Minister Harris, today I call on you to protect our members. I ask that your actions speak louder than words and that you hold management to account for their failure to adhere to agreements. Since we met you on 1st March the overcrowding crisis has worsened, drug use in our prisons is at unprecedented levels, recruitment is basically at a standstill and failure to implement agreed policies is resulting in less services for prisoners. This combination is creating the perfect storm and as history repeats itself assaults on staff are increasing as the tension levels in our prisons increases. And this as we all know will sooner or later lead to a major crisis in one or other of our prisons.
Minister, I call on you to address our concerns about how and why you are allowing the Director General create an environment in which our members are put at unnecessary risk on a daily basis. This practice is as dangerous as it is unacceptable.
Delegates, while researching this address for this year’s conference I looked back over several of my predecessors addresses to conference and one of the common themes that all of them had was overcrowding. And regretfully it’s an issue I must address AGAIN here today. Minister, in my address to the conference in 2018 I asked the then Minister for Justice and your party colleague to ensure that we did not return to the days of Pack Em, Stack Em and Rack Em, but unfortunately this is where we find ourselves again today. We again have Single cells doubled up, mattresses on floors, prisoner population gone through the roof and the IPS solution…buy bunk beds? In the past the solution adopted by the IPS to deal with overcrowding was to increase the capacity of prisons with the stroke of a pen. Minister, this does not solve the problem, it merely hides it. Minister, this is 2023 and we live in a modern economically sound country.
It is a sad inditement on both the Department of Justice and the Irish Prison Service that we find ourselves in this situation today considering that over 200 years ago when Limerick Jail was constructed it was designed on the basis of single cell accommodation, Let’s consider that, over 200 years ago there was a more progressive outlook on penal reform than we have now 23 years into the 21st century. Prison numbers have increased year on year, from approximately 3,750 in April 2017 to over 4,400 in April 2023. The Prison Officers’ Association has continued to raise the overcrowding issue with the IPS so it’s not as if this crisis happened over night, we had predicted it, and now the numbers are there for all to see and as always for our members to manage at the coalface.
I want to give you an example of how the Irish Prison Service, even very recently, has continued to bury its head in the sand and manipulate the figures in order to hide the overcrowding problem. These quotes to follow are taken from a 2019 Chaplains report of the Dochas Centre, and I quote – “Built in 1999, the Dochas Centre is a medium-security remand centre and place of detention that was designed to house 85 women”. The report goes on to say “Later the infrastructure was upgraded to provide capacity for 105”. I want you to remember that figure of 105. Back to the report, “Over the course of 2019, the numbers of women in the custody have varied between 130 and 150. During the worst periods of overcrowding, up to 5 women at once were sharing a makeshift bedroom. As per the Director of Operations, the bed capacity of the prison at the time of writing is stated to be 146, and although fire regulations have been updated and extra bed obtained, no new infrastructural changes have been implemented. Based on its original structure and vision for the prison it has operated typically between 123% and 142% of its original capacity of 105. On 19th April 2023 there was 170 females in custody in the Dochas. Now recall the figure I asked you to remember 105, the actual bed capacity of the Dochas and consider that it now holds in excess of 170, that’s 162% of its original capacity. You couldn’t make this up Minister? If we were reading this account in respect of some other European country, we would be asking what are they at? What has gone wrong with their prison service?
Minister, In February you announced your intention to appoint a further 24 judges this year with the possibility of a further 20 depending on progress. Your proposal goes on to suggest a five-day working week across all jurisdictions, longer court sittings and shortened holidays. There is one definite that will come out of all this Minister and that is an increase in the numbers of people committed to our prisons. The important question that it poses is, Where will we put them because the Department of Justice officials are just standing with hands in their pockets ignoring the issue and hoping it will just go away?
Overcrowding provides the perfect atmosphere for the bully to thrive. It leads to huge pressure being put on vulnerable prisoners to traffic in contraband, including weapons and illegal drugs. Serious violence is very often part of the scenario here and we prison officers pay the inevitable price. You must take swift and decisive action on this most serious matter Minister, and need I say that your advisors and officials are doing you no favours in setting up such an announcement, without first addressing the inevitable overcrowding to follow.
Apart from the threat of assaults one of the biggest concerns among our members is being the subject of a vexatious prisoner complaint. We have all seen previously the detrimental effect of being the victim of a vexatious complaint can have on the mental health of an officer. In wider society if a person makes a complaint to the Gardai and it is found to be vexatious, that person can be prosecuted for wasting Garda time and resources, and rightly so. NOT so in the Prison Service. These vexatious complaints can bring the career of a professional and hardworking prison officer to a grinding halt. The way the complaints’ structure is designed means that the better an officer does their job the more likely they are to be the subject of a vexatious complaint.
Again, the structure of the Complaint system means that an officer who is the subject of a vexatious complaint is remarkably not entitled to any form of redress. And we all know that the vast majority of complaints are vexatious but yet we have to comply with the process, a process that can drag on for months, even years. I have dealt with a case recently where a complaint was lodged in June but the officer in question was not informed until December, A full 6 months later and even then, was only informed that they were the subject of a Category A complaint citing Mistreatment, nothing more about the incident, the incident or the prisoner involved. This process continued for several months before the officer involved was informed that the process was complete and they had no case to answer. This is just one example of a flawed process, I could give many more.
Justice delayed is justice denied.
As I said previously everybody in the system is aware that most Category A complaints are vexatious, a fact that is borne out by the statistics provided to the POA by the Irish Prison Service. In 2022, 68 complaints were deemed to be Category A complaints. Of those 68 only ONE was upheld. These statistics also show that ONE PRISONER was responsible for over 10% of all Category A complaints in 2022, and you may ask why? It’s because they can – and they know that there are no repercussions for accusing an officer in the wrong or tarnishing their good name.
Minister, this has to change because if the shoe was on the other foot and an officer made a false allegation against a prisoner, I can assure you that officer would be subjected to the full rigors of the Disciplinary Code. We must find a way of doing better on this ongoing issue Minister, our members deserve better.
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.
We prison officers’ pride ourselves on having an unquestioned spirit of camaraderie. And given the job we have to do it is essential that when an officer is on a landing, no weakness is shown, and the job gets done regardless of what may be going on inside their head. It is a failsafe for Prison Officers. It ensures that no matter what you are confronted with, be it violence, drug overdoses, attempted or successful suicide attempts or any of the worst parts of human nature that are all in a day’s work for a prison officer, that you deal with it and move on. But it’s not that simple as we all know. And it’s not 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 “it’s 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 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.
In my address to conference in 2019 I referred to the problems facing our members in dealing with prisoners with serious mental health issues. Research indicates that up to 70% of prisoners have mental health issues ranging from anxiety and low-level depression to Psychosis. Up to 70% of prisoners have addiction issues. Many prisoners are committed to our prisons because of the shortage of beds and accommodation in suitable hospitals or institutions. In 2015 the 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 these 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!!!
Minister, 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.
As part of my role as President of the Association it is my privilege to meet all the new Recruit Prison Officers and Prison Clerical Officers to give a presentation on the benefits of joining the POA. Recruit classes, of late, have become a major cause of concern for the POA. Meeting classes of 8, 9 or 10 RPO’s is now commonplace. Tomorrow I will be attending a Passing out ceremony in the Irish Prison Service College to celebrate the graduation of 9 RPO’s. 9 RPO’s won’t even cover the retirements from the Midlands Prison this year let alone bring up the shortfall of Prison Officers being experienced across the entire estate.
The big question here is WHY? Why is security clearance taking so long? Why can the Irish Prison Service not attract individuals to the job of a Prison Officer? Why are they waiting until August to launch a new Recruitment Drive? Don’t get me wrong, the POA absolutely support the recruitment of more officers. Around 30 years ago a massive recruitment campaign saw a huge intake of prison officers so we are now approaching a period where all of these people will have completed their service and will be eligible to retire. Many of our prisons are already understaffed and retirements will only serve to worsen the situation.
The people in our care are not as patient or understanding as society in general as can be seen from my earlier comments on assaults. Staff shortages change the dynamic of our work to the extent that procedures, such as the Regime Management Plan which are an agreed Health & Safety tool that were to be employed on an odd occasion, are now required on a daily basis. That is IF the management do what they are supposed to do. Furthermore, when the annualized hours agreement was reached 18 years ago with the Government of the day the principal guiding factor in that agreement was that in order for the annualized hours system to work, there had to be continuous recruit availability in order to keep pace with retirements.
Minister, I am asking for your commitment on a number of issues on recruitment.
- That the upcoming Recruitment Drive is fast tracked
- That you ensure that the recruitment drive is as professional as the one currently being run by the An Garda Siochana that will attract the right people to our service.
- That you prioritise the Security Clearance system, a system that can currently see an applicant waiting up to a year for clearance, and get applicants cleared for work in our prisons rather than the current snail’s pace which inhibits panels being put in place in a timely fashion.
Finally, delegates, strong confident and united unions are always good for members – so let’s keep focused and support each other. The management side would prefer us to be fighting with one another and not focusing on the important issues. The Minister, the Director General and Governors have a job to do – but their job is not about your welfare, rights and benefits – so don’t forget that. The only group concerned about all these issues is the Prison Officers Association. The POA is 100% on your side especially when the chips are down. Personalities and individuals will change but the association will always remain a constant if properly supported and managed.
Delegates, over the years we have all seen change in our job and working conditions and none of us are that naïve that we don’t foresee further change coming down the line. But remember Delegates, we can influence and continually attempt to influence change – but to do so we must stick together, Our Unity is our Strength. To conclude I want to finally thank you, the members, for your support of this organisation especially when we needed it and I want to compliment you and all prison officers for the outstanding job you do on behalf of the State, day in day out all year round.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh.