On behalf of the National Executive Council it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to this year’s Annual Delegate Conference of the Prison Officers’ Association. I would like to extend a warm welcome to the Mayor of Galway Councillor Noel Larkin, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Ms. Frances Fitzgerald T.D. and members of the Irish Prison Service.
I would like to extend a particularly warm welcome to our fellow trade unionists, the national media, our invited guests and especially our delegates from around the country, who are present here today.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 of all present here today. We will also remember those members and former members who died during the past year and their families.
Delegates, last year in my address to Conference I referred to issues affecting our members such as Pay, Recruitment, the Safety of Staff, Violence, Drugs, Gang Culture, Motivation, Morale and of course the possibility of the introduction of Privatisation into the Prison Estate. Unfortunately delegates, while some progress has been made in regard to the retention of the rent allowance for new recruits, the commencement of a modest recruitment programme, and the conditions attached to the Prison Administration grades there are many issues affecting Prison Officers which remain unchanged. The Government now seems to the using a nine-year-old economic crash as an excuse to deny our members a decent wage – and this has become as intolerable as it is unacceptable.
Minister you will be well aware of the focus of the various trade unions over the past weeks, at conferences, as they rightly highlight the need for immediate pay restoration. The Prison Officers’ Association is no different – and we simply cannot wait any longer to have our 2008 pay levels restored. Since 2008, across both public and private sectors, there have been limited wage increases, which has contributed significantly to the recovery in the economy. During that time frame the tax burden on incomes rose, with no increase on earnings. The cuts in Public Service pay were particularly painful as they came after a recent history of wage increases – nonetheless it was these same cuts that made the country more competitive and paved the way for a brighter future for all our citizens. Other sectors are now benefitting from our wage cuts – and we have yet to benefit – this is surely unfair and unjust.
The Government tells us week after week about increased tax income, reduced unemployment and other cash flow benefits for the state. Yet workers are being told and media are being briefed to the effect that ‘we can’t afford it – Well Minister all of us know that you can’t play with the wind in both halves as the Government is now trying to do. It is simply unfair, unjust and unacceptable that our members and other workers have had to carry the burden for the failings of others for the past nine years. While we all wait on the outcome of the report of the Public Service Pay Commission, prior to the new pay talks commencing, there can be no doubt of the contribution of Prison Officers throughout the financial crisis and our compliance with the Lansdowne Road Agreement. Under the most onerous of conditions of any worker in this country we have managed to keep the Prison Service operational on occasions when making it to lock up time looked unlikely. Don’t take our professionalism as a sign of weakness, but as an incentive to do the right thing by returning us to the pay scales that we were at before the collapse. It goes without saying that the the recent ruling of the Labour Court in relation to the Gardaí has changed the agenda considerably where better terms were secured than what was contained in the LRA. We want what others are having? – We can’t have further injustices creeping into the pay environment and I expect that you and the Government will ensure that this will not happen. Let me make it clear Minister, our members need, deserve and expect pay restoration and we want it now. The crisis is over we have paid the price. The anomalies arising from the Labour Court Recommendations in the Garda Area and the complete unwinding of the FEMPI legislation must be addressed immediately.
Colleagues over the past number of Annual Conferences we told you that the Official Side had categorically stated that future entrants to the Irish Prison Service, the Fire Fighters and the Gardai would not receive the rent allowance. We never accepted this position and in this regard we commissioned IPC Consultants to research the entire background to this allowance so that this work would be completed when this matter became a live issue for the POA. We shared this information with our sister unions. When the Minister for Justice announced on Friday 8th July 2016, that there was to be recruitment to the position of Recruit Prison Officer it became a live issue with ramifications for prison staff that would continue far into the future. We immediately contacted the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and following his response to our contact engagement commenced between the parties on the re-instatement of the Rent Allowance. Due to our efforts the long established rent allowance for Prison Officers was reinstated with effect from Monday 20th March 2017 and recruits have already benefitted from it. Minister this of course resolves one issue with regard to the Rent Allowance. However as I have already outlined, it leaves two remaining issues as a result of the Labour Court Recommendations in the Garda area they are: The incorporation of the Rent Allowance into Basic Pay and the €500 annual increase in the value of the Rent Allowance. Minister I must ask for your full support in respect of these two issues. You can ensure that these matters are resolved satisfactorily for our members and you must understand that any dilution would be seen as significantly undermining a group of workers who deliver for this State 24/7, year after year.
Minister, the Prison Service is currently facing a staffing crisis. There are simply not enough Prison Officers to do what we are required to do. This will be an issue for our Conference this morning as it has blighted the entire Prison estate. All of us are aware that retirements this year will exceed recruitment figures – this is not sustainable and it creates an ongoing additional risk for prison staff and prisoners. Minister when we entered into the annualised hour’s process the one caveat that we were repeatedly told by all experts was that recruitment had to keep pace with retirement or else the arrangement would flounder. Well here we are Minister and guess what happened? Not only that Minister we have Governors and a Prison Service that are living in a time capsule stuck in the mid-1990s, where they think that all that has to be done is wait for a supplementary budget and open every workshop, every exercise yard and every gym and hope that it will be ok because it was ok yesterday. Appeasement didn’t work for Neville Chamberlain and it won’t work for Mr. Donnellan. In the current circumstances and for the protection of our members, we support the implementation of a Regime Management Plan across the prison estate. We support the regime management plan that provides access to meaningful work while protecting our members on the ground – but as of yet, there is no progress on its implementation to date. We want to be crystal clear on this that while we support the opening of workshops and progressive regimes, these initiatives can only continue where there are adequate staffing levels to allow our members to work in safety. While we support this initiative, I must emphasize, that we do have grave reservations with regard to management’s desire and ability to implement such a regime. Minister, the crisis is over, the moratorium on recruitment is over, deploy sufficient staff to operate a modern prison estate, which provides an environment where staff and prisoners can work and live safely. Until we have the staffing levels in place to do all that is planned, Governors will have to learn to say no to prisoners and support their staff. Minister, you must fight for the service, reduce the risk to all involved and ensure that all our prisons are fully resourced at all times. We constantly hear about rehabilitation within the prison system, a policy and a practice we fully support. However, rehabilitation comes at a price, we must invest in it – and the main investment must be in prison staff, who, work with prisoners around the clock in all our prisons.
Assaults in Prisons
The issue of violence in prisons continues, unfortunately with a number of very serious incidents involving assaults on prison staff. In a recent analysis conducted by the State Claims Agency the projected level of assaults by prisoners on prison staff for 2017 was estimated at 107. Let’s just think about that for a minute; more than two prison officers per week will be assaulted in the course of their work. For the avoidance of doubt every prison officer knows and accepts the risks involved in our work, but what we cannot fathom is why recommendations such as the compulsory carrying of batons were rejected. The nature of these assaults included concussion, lacerations, cuts, fractures burns and bites. The most of these injuries were to the head and face thereby leaving a permanent reminder to the injured officer of the incident. The starkest statistic is that nearly 80% of staff who responded had been physically assaulted by prisoners in the course of their duties. The overall statistical element in relation to prison violence does not fully capture the undermining element of violence in the workplace and how it pervades every facet of an officer’s working day.
In order to have a sustainable work environment the challenges that these assaults manifest need to be addressed in a consistent manner. An officer who is constantly on guard or lacks confidence in the system is unlikely to contribute wholeheartedly to that system. While all prison officers recognise the reality of violence in prisons, prison officers feel undermined by an inconsistency in the approach to the violence. The failure to implement adequate protection measures; successfully used in other jurisdictions such as batons, incapacitant spray and body cameras is another factor that undermines staff confidence. The SCA review made some very specific recommendations, which hopefully will not be ignored by IPS. The report also recommends that the Prison Service needs to develop a more transparent and graded deterrent and disciplinary procedure (based on severity of breach) to act as a deterrent against assaults on operational staff. The assaults on prison officers have tragically become part of the system, part of the culture – and this is not acceptable to the Prison Officers Association.
Minister when we met with you we outlined our concerns on these matters. While there are plans afoot to open a section of the Midlands Prison for violent and disruptive prisoners this is the least that should have been done and done long before now. Officers still bear the damage from the brutality of these individuals. In some cases lifelong injury, that prevents them from continuing as a prison officer. We believe that these people who have sacrificed their health in the cause of the state should be at the very least accommodated within the broader Public Service on terms no less onerous than that which they enjoyed as fully functioning Prison Officers. No state employee should end up on the breadline because they have been viciously assaulted at work and are unable to return. While the extension to our sick leave provisions for Officers who were subject to such brutality were welcome they don’t go far enough. These officers should be facilitated in returning to work within the Prison estate or somewhere within the Public Service – and I would ask again that you treat this issue as a priority.
No Prosecution of Assaults on Staff
Delegates – if we needed more evidence of how the Prison Service regard Prison Officers, we need go no further than this most recent development where staff who have been seriously assaulted and report their assault to the relevant authorities cannot get a conviction, in spite of a wealth of available evidence and in one significant case an admission of guilt from the prisoner. In a highly publicized incident in the Midlands Prison in 2015 an officer was stabbed by a prisoner and the matter was reported to the Gardai. Many staff present on the day were not asked for a report and in spite of the prisoner admitting to the assault in front of a Governor the DPP ruled that a prosecution could not proceed due to lack of evidence!!! In a similar incident in the same prison an officer was assaulted which can clearly be seen on a CCTV camera. However as another CCTV – that wouldn’t have shown anything any different – hadn’t been saved – the prisoner walked on a technicality! Both of these incidents show a clear disregard for the working conditions and rights of Prison Officers in institutions where if a similar injury befell a prisoner there are an entire raft of rules and procedures to protect them.
The Prison Service have recruited 31 new investigators for the purpose of conducting investigations to the highest standard for Prisoner Complaints yet when the Officers make a complaint the Keystone Cops approach prevails. Why not broaden the remit of these investigators and make them responsible for collation of evidence within the prison estate.
One of the motions before our conference is that each prison should have a Garda Liaison Officer – and this makes total sense. When officers are assaulted and the Gardai investigation commences – our officers can at times have difficulty getting up to date information on the investigation. This is not acceptable and a designated liaison officer at each prison can resolve this problem immediately. If a proper collation system existed in tandem with a Garda Liaison for each institution then we believe that the scandalous lack of prosecution of serious assaults on staff would not occur On a related matter it is imperative that where an assault is perpetrated by a prisoner on a prison officer in the execution of his duties that any sentence is consecutive. We have looked for this previously and have made no progress to date on it. It stands to reason as a preventative measure that there should be a significant tariff on any assault on a prison officer in the course of their duties. We have recently noted that the Gardai have again called for mandatory sentencing for assaults on Gardai. We fully support this and are strongly of the view that this should also apply to assaults on prison officers. Minister there is either a lack of will or competence to address these issues we are asking you today to deal with both.
For some observers this will represent the ‘hardy annual’ of the POA Conference and it will remain so Minister until it is fixed. Gang warfare and drug culture continue to flourish within the prison estate. In the current environment we have threats, assaults, drugs, weapons, attacks on family homes and the capacity to control matters outside the prison. The status quo cannot remain. We must – and this is the responsibility of the Minister and the Prison Service – develop a system that removes the power from the gangs and the gang members within our prisons by whatever means are necessary. Otherwise the entire prison system is failing society and especially the section of the prison population, who are not involved in thuggery. We have to again question this agenda of appeasement; rather than making the membership of a gang something to be avoided or hidden. We are told that any attempts to isolate these individuals will be resisted in the courts and will get significant support in some quarters. Let us go the courts on this issue and see where it takes us. Prison gangs should not decide what is best within our prison, the state is responsible for all that happens inside our prisons and surely it is not going to cede this responsibility to people who have committed the most serious crimes – and many who have no intention whatever of changing their ways. The only solution Minister is isolation so instead of closing our places of work could we open one that will prevent these individuals from spreading their influence through the entire estate.
During the year we saw the decommissioning of St Patricks Institution due to the relocation of juveniles prisoners to Oberstown House. St Patricks Institution for many years played a key role within the penal system looking after young offenders sent to Prison by the Court. This was no easy task and the Staff must be commended for their professionalism in dealing with such young Offenders on behalf of the State. I personally wish to take this opportunity to thank all previous members and POA Officials who worked at St Pats over the years. St Pats had a proud tradition of trade unionism among its staff and it was also a leading light in the POA since its inception in 1947. I hope that the great traditions associated with St Patricks will live on and can be continued across the entire service in the years ahead.
It is also with regret that we will see the temporary closure of the Training Unit within the coming weeks for the purpose of refurbishment we are told. As we informed the Dáil Sub Committee on Penal Reform we believe that this is a seriously retrograde step and one, which will undermine many years of real work in a place that actually delivered on a rehabilitation agenda, rather than the usual plethora of sanctimonious backslapping that accompanies any suggestion of rehabilitation. It is for this reason that I wish to acknowledge the contribution of the Staff in the Training Unit for the role they played in providing such a rehabilitative environment for those in their care prior to release. We have received many undertakings from your officials in relation to its reopening and I hope that you will seize the opportunity to endorse those undertakings today. From the Associations point of view on behalf of the NEC and indeed the entire membership I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the local Branch Officials of both Institutions who have worked tirelessly not only in representing Staff in their location but also for playing their part in the overall development and operation of the Prison Officers Association over many years. I have no doubt we might possibly see you here again at Conference representing your colleagues at your new location wherever that may be.
Colleagues before concluding, I offer some words of warning. Just because our national economy has turned the corner – does not mean that long term threats to the greater good of our Service have disappeared and moved off the agenda. I am of course referring to the ongoing threat of privitisation to our Public Services. Maybe we should take a minute to reflect on the debacle that was Irish Water – was that not about privatization!. While there were certain protections contained in the Lansdowne Road Agreement with regard to out sourcing, over the past year I have seen or heard nothing to alleviate my fears regarding privatisation of Public Services. In respect to our own service I know that the Prison Service is involved in a Department of Justice value for money review, examining the area of Prison Escorts. We are therefore very concerned regarding the pace and non – implementation of issues such as video linking, the implementation of proper service level agreements with the level of PSEC assist remaining a contentious issue. Colleagues, for those who think that the outsourcing of PSEC would give relief to the Prisons in terms of the redistribution of Staff – I want to warn you that it wouldn’t. Privatisation would merely have secured a foothold in the Prison Service, which would be a deplorable and worrying situation.
Of course we are all aware of what has occurred in other jurisdictions in respect to privatization – it has not solved all the problems and neither has it proven to be as cost effective as predicted. We are therefore very concerned when we hear of such value for money reviews being conducted by the Dept of Justice. In the UK where privatisation is in train – I would suggest to those who view privatisation as some sort of magic wand – to check the bottom line. If our prisons do not stick with the rehabilitation agenda, which is much less likely in a private system – then the overall cost to the Irish taxpayer will be much greater in the long run. In fact it was in the Private Prisons in the UK that the major riots took place earlier this year and it took staff in the Public Service to restore order. Not many people know that? So Minister tread warily with privatisation – and I would advise that you check the small print before signing on the dotted line?
In these challenging times as we fight to get out pay levels restored and do everything possible to create a safer prison environment – we must stick together and support each other. We have a proud history of working together and supporting each other even in the most troubled times, as is clear from how we played our part in protecting this democracy from the vile intentions of others. We should all be proud of what we have achieved together over the past seventy years.
I am fully aware of the frustration of many members who feel that they don’t get a fair hearing from those in authority.
I am fully aware that we have largely only seen initiatives introduced that benefit those in our custody rather than any benefit to our working conditions.
I am fully aware that prison officers, who have borne the burden, are looking at other groups in the economy who are thriving and saying when is it our turn?
I am fully aware that it seems the job is getting harder with less of us to do it.
All I can say to you is that we have come through difficult times together in the past and now we are about to turn the corner to restore what we have earned over many years. It is now more essential than ever that we stick together in unity for the purpose of attaining those gains and facing the challenges of the future. Now it is time for one last push, to stay focussed so as to get back to where we were before 2008. We survived by staying united through the last next nine very difficult years. We now must remain united to see the restoration of our pay so we can draw a line under this period. If we ask the question how we survived since 2008 it was because of one thing; we did it together.
Delegates, colleagues, friends let’s not change a winning formula and continue as we have always done; one voice, one group, one union.