Presidential Address to the 77th Annual Delegate Conference Sligo, 25th April 2024

Picture of Dermot Kelly

Dermot Kelly

Home » Presidential Address to the 77th Annual Delegate Conference Sligo, 25th April 2024

Good morning, Delegates,


On behalf of the National Executive Council, I offer you all a warm welcome to this year’s Annual Delegate Conference here in the Radisson Blu Hotel, Sligo.


I welcome the Minister for Justice, Ms. Helen McEntee, Director General of the Irish Prison Service, Ms. Caron McCaffrey and her officials from IPS. I would also like to thank the Lord Mayor of Sligo, Councilor Declan Bree, Sligo’s longest serving councilor, for his attendance and address at the opening of our conference this morning.


I warmly welcome our colleagues from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, our fellow Trade Unionists including those from Europe, invited guests, the national media – and especially our hard-working delegates who are present here today. To our delegates who are attending their first conference, I hope you enjoy the experience and that you can take something away from here that will assist you in your important work as a staff representative.

I would like to extend the best wishes of everyone here today to our colleagues who have been victims of serious assault or other traumatic incidents whilst carrying out their duties on behalf of the state over the past year.  And I also want to acknowledge and recognize the impact these often violent and unprovoked assaults can have on the families of those affected.


I would also like to make special mention of Officer Margaret Murphy (Mountjoy) and Officer Will Sherlock (Portlaoise) who passed away since our conference last year. RIP



Delegates, Five years ago I stood on this very stage as the numbers of prisoners in custody was fast approaching 4,000 and I pleaded with the then Minister for Justice, Mr. Charlie Flanagan, to ensure we did not return to the old days of “Pack em, Stack em and Rack em”. Last year I made a similar plea to the then acting Minister for Justice and now an Taoiseach Mr. Simon Harris. Today the number of prisoners in custody across the estate is about to reach a staggering 5000. Yes 5000. That is an incredible 25% increase on the figure of 5 years ago. And has there been a 25% increase in cell accommodation you might well ask??  Delegates, we all know the answer to that question. It’s very clear that our attempts to highlight this issue continually fall on deaf ears, and despite the promises on real extra spaces made here year on year by successive Ministers – nothing happens – nothing. And this is a disgrace, let’s just call it what it is.


This is not an overcrowding crisis that happened overnight, a crisis that couldn’t have been foreseen as the Director General has previously stated. In simple terms it has been flagged, identified and largely ignored. In 2019 Minister Flanagan and in 2023 Minister Harris both acknowledged the difficulties coming down the tracks. The Director General, at a recent appearance at the Public Accounts Committee, stated that the IPS had created over 200 extra spaces in the past year, citing 96 new spaces in the Training Unit. These are NOT NEW SPACES. They are the 117 spaces that were taken out of commission in 2016 for refurbishment and when returned for use gave back 96 spaces. And I think its fair to say that we should not try to play games with these figures, they are much too important for that.

So, let’s take a look at some other figures.  The Irish Prison Service regularly provides the POA with Prisoner Population figures. In 2019 these population spreadsheets contained, among other information, the number of prisoners in custody in each institution, the bed capacity of each institution, and importantly the bed capacity of each institution as per the Inspector of Prisons.


These last two figures, namely the actual bed capacity and advised bed capacity by the Inspector, rarely matched – so interestingly the figures we are supplied with today no longer contain the recommendations of the Inspector of Prisons, as to do so would highlight the ever more chronic overcrowding problem in the Irish Prison System.


In February 2022, during Covid, the Bed Capacity of the Irish Prison Service was 4471 with 4182 in custody.  Up to March of this year the 2022 capacity had increased by 43 to 4514 while the number in custody had increased by a staggering 763 inmates. Imagine trying to fit 763 cars into a car park with only 43 spaces? Unfortunately, we don’t have to imagine this, our members must work around the clock trying to resolve all the problems related to this reality on the ground.


Minister, in 2019 the capacity at Limerick Female Prison was, according to IPS, 28. Following the opening of the new “State of the Art” female prison the capacity has risen to 56, a cost of almost €1.9m for every single one of the new spaces created. So, you have to ask the question, how many spaces will €49.5 million deliver? And today in the “State of the Art” prison opened just over 6 months ago there are 15 prisoners sleeping on camp beds. But this is okay because the Director General has stated that “The fact that new Limerick Prison is overcrowded is mitigated by the exceptional facilities”. This, if I might say so, is a whole new take on the overcrowding issue.


In 2019 the bed capacity at the Midlands Prison was, according to the Inspector of Prison, 870 with 826 in custody. Today that capacity figure stands at 875 but in March of this year the prisoner population at the Midlands reached 983, over 100 above capacity.  And I’ve little doubt that our members will be landed with the responsibility for over 1000 prisoners at the Midlands in the coming weeks. This Minister is as unsafe as it is unacceptable.

Mountjoy Prison, with no increase in capacity since 2019, has gone from 668 prisoners to 845, a 25% increase.


Cork Prison, the most modern prison in the estate which now has all but a handful of its 167 cells doubled up, has gone from housing 287 prisoners just 12 months ago to 352 in February this year, with up to 52 prisoners now sleeping on floors.


Cloverhill has the same capacity today as it had in 2019 but has almost 70 more prisoners.

Every prison across the estate is confronted with the same capacity problem. Numbers are through the roof and there seems to be no real consideration for staff or prisoner safety.


Three weeks ago, at a HCCC graduation ceremony for officers in Dublin Castle, Minister McEntee announced four capital projects that will provide over 650 additional prisoner spaces in Midlands, Cloverhill, Mountjoy and Castlerea. I seem to recall at last year’s conference, our new Taoiseach and then interim Minister for Justice Mr. Simon Harris making the same announcement, stating that he had identified 4 short term Capital Projects that could deliver 400 extra prison spaces over the next 5 years. A year later and not a sod has been turned to create even one of these spaces.


These short-term, and I put short-term in inverted commas, capital projects may help ease the problem, but they definitely will not eradicate it.


Our prisoner population has grown by 1000 in the last five years, we currently have up to 200 sleeping on floors or camp beds and with an ever growing population, it stands to reason that our prisoner population is going to continue to grow so I predict that the President of the POA will be addressing our conference on the overcrowding crisis within the Irish Prison Service in 2030 and beyond. Hopefully he or she is not also taking about the tragic issues which were predicted and emerged as a direct result of overcrowding?


Minister, whilst the POA will always welcome additional prison spaces, provided that they come with additional staff and associated services, 5 years down the road is no use to our members today as they deal with dangerously overcrowded prisons. There has already been a noticeable increase in the number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, and we have been informed of incidents of hostage taking in Cloverhill as prisoners compete for services such as visits, tuck shop, medical services, workshops and education. Minister, our members have a proven track record in delivering a professional service to prisoners. This professional service lends itself to the creation of a positive environment which in turn helps with prisoner rehabilitation. In an overcrowded system, without adequate access to services, you are hindering our good work and impacting directly on the potential rehabilitation of prisoners.


Minister, we note the vast amounts of money the Government is taking in on taxes, and we compliment them on that. We also note announcement after announcement on major expenditure items, such as the Childrens hospital, which we also welcome – but when are going to have an announcement which will revolutionise the way we treat one of the most vulnerable sections of our society, our prison population. In this wealthy country of ours we need to do better, much better.


We need a solution NOW, not another promise or announcement.


Regime Management Plan

Minister, I want to touch briefly on Regime Management Plans. On behalf of our members, I ask you to ensure that the IPS implement the Regime Management Plan in line with their commitment under the PSA 2024-2026 to continue the development and embedding of Regime Management Planning to ensure prioritisation of structured activities for prisoners while maintaining safe systems of work for staff. It is imperative during these times that safe systems of work are in place for staff and that where individual managers fail to adhere to these safe systems of work, they must be held to account by the Director General, something that has not happened heretofore.


Drugs & Discipline

Delegates, over the past while there has been a very worrying trend developing across the prison estate. The trend I am referring to is the unwillingness of senior managers to impose sanctions when prisoners are found to be in breach of prison rules.


We are all aware of the increase in contraband finding its way into our prisons, again another issue that I have highlighted in previous addresses to conferences. The Prison Service has regretfully not kept up with the advances in Drone technology, another promise made and broken by the IPS.  This promise was made by the Minister for Justice in 2019.


The IPS Drug Strategy Policy 2023-2026 commits to “Review implementation of Drone Mitigation Project to measure effectiveness and inform future of project”. This project does not work, ask any officer. Drone deliveries are an almost daily occurrence in most prisons.

In a media interview in 2019 the Director General said that the use of Drones was a new phenomenon, and the Irish Prison Service was “On top of it”. Minister, in 2021 you stated that “a pilot system at two prisons this year was successful and will be rolled out across the country next year” So let’s see what the Successful Pilot System and being On Top of it really means, The IPS purchased Interceptor Drones that were never used? The IPS purchased Anti Drone Technology, that doesn’t work. The IPS purchased Drone Tracking Technology which is outdated?


Delegates, I’m glad the IPS are on top of it because if they weren’t we’d all be in serious trouble. Once again, the criminal fraternity has left us grasping at straws because our employer has failed to keep up with what is now standard technology.


The Strategy Policy continues that the IPS will “Develop a policy document detailing security measures to be applied by staff to prevent drugs being smuggled into prisons, and the steps to be taken by staff to search for and retrieve drugs that enter the prison”. Each and every member of staff is aware of the steps to be taken to search for and retrieve drugs that are being smuggled into prisons, we do it on a daily basis. Our members in the OSG, OSU and Canine Unit are doing a fantastic job given their limited resources.


Minister, our members put themselves in harm’s way each and every day on behalf of the state doing this work so can you imagine how disheartening it must be for them to go out into an exercise yard full of prisoners to remove a prisoner who has received a “Throw Over” package, retrieve the contraband, which in one case included 5 Mobile Phones, place that prisoner on a P19 report only for the Governor to give him a warning. No other punishment for receiving contraband, being non-compliant and putting our members at risk.


Minister, it is totally unacceptable that a Governor will hold our members to account but won’t exercise the same level of accountability when it comes to prisoner discipline. As Minister for Justice, I’ve no doubt that you are aware that possession of a mobile phone in a prison can carry a sentence of up to 5 years. This prisoner had 5 phones and he got a warning. But this is not an isolated incident, this is happening day in, day out in most prisons across the entire estate.

Minister, this lack of a deterrent or threat of discipline is outlined in the figures that are on the screen behind me, 1272 Mobile phones recovered, 1294 drug finds, 308 weapon seizures. 2874 incidents in 2023 and only 66 arrests.   In my 26 years as a prison officer, I am not aware of one prisoner who has been prosecuted for possession of an illicit substance in prison. Until there is a deterrent for visitors smuggling contraband into our prisons or for prisoners found in possession of it, then we are fighting a losing battle.


Civil Service Disciplinary Code

Minister, in late 2020, after more than a 10-year battle, the POA were successful in having our members moved over to the Civil Service Disciplinary Code. Having spent over 20 years being subjected to the Irish Prison Service Code of Discipline we were delighted to be moving to, what we believed would be, a far fairer process. Unfortunately, this has not proven to be the case. The Irish Prison Service management are like a child with a new toy, they want to show everyone what it can do. The flagrant abuse of “Protective Measures” is plain for all to see.

Following a Freedom of Information request the POA received figures which show that between October 2021 and December 2023 the Irish Prison Service held at least 318 disciplinary meetings. 318 disciplinary meetings for a total staff of about 3400. Let’s compare that to the Department of Justice who had just 6 Disciplinary meetings and the Department of Social Protection, who with a staff of over 7,000 held just 24 Disciplinary Meetings. If you are an officer of a lower rank your protective measure put in place for a breach of the code has generally become suspension whilst an investigation is carried out. If you are on the roster, then this is tantamount to a serious pay cut.  If you’re a manager involved in a similar incident it is most likely there will be no investigation and you will be allowed to carry on as normal. Again, we have a situation where not all people are equal, and this cannot be allowed to continue.



Delegates, I know that the Irish Prison Service must be tiring of listening to me harping out about the same issues year after year.  Let me assure you delegates, as long as I am President of this Association, I will continue to highlight these critical issues at the highest level in the hope that someday the Prison Service and the Department of Justice will sit up and listen and effect real change in the service.


Our members, and you, their local representatives work in an extremely stressful and difficult job, day in day out, on behalf of the state and when we look to our employer for guidance and assistance we are met with a shrug of the shoulders and a blank stare.


If prisons could be run by social media or grandiose announcements, then the IPS could even be in line for The Booker Prize for fiction.   However, as you all know the IPS is disappointingly all sizzle and no steak, and therefore we can only depend on one another and the lifelong commitment of our Union over the last 77 years.  Thankfully, we have a strong and united union that will continue to fight for fairness and a safer work environment for our members.


We are told there are only two definites in life, Death and Taxes but delegates, today I will give you a third one, if it is possible to make a mess of something then give it to the Irish Prison Service and they definitely won’t let you down.


Go raibh mile máith agaibh.

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