Presidential Address to the 65th Annual Delegate Conference, Galway, 26th 2012

April 26, 2012

Delegates on behalf of the National Executive Council I welcome you all to our 65th Annual Delegate Conference here in the Radisson Hotel here in Galway.I extend a warm welcome to our invited guests including the national media. I want to sincerely thank Minister of State Kathleen Lynch, T.D. for her presence, representing the Minister, who is abroad at this time. I also extend a warm welcome to our trusted colleagues from the British Prison Officers Associations and at this time I especially wish to remember our dear departed colleagues who have passed on throughout this past year. Minister, in my address last year I outlined our grave concerns for a service, which is under immense pressure and facing serious challenges. Overcrowding, drugs, violence, were all highlighted as major impediments on the current service. I also emphasised that the POA was here to do business on developing and providing a Prison Service which we can participate in with pride. Well Minister we have played our part but unfortunately we are confronted by different voices and approaches in the context of discussions with Prison Service Officials, which often leads nowhere and solves nothing. On one side of the Prison Service we are working well to try and work through our problems in the difficult environment we find ourselves in while on the other side of the same organisation we find it is very difficult in regard to implementation of agreements, which is ultimately damaging to our service and grossly unfair on our members.

Frontline

When people talk about Frontline Services they usually think of Nurses, Gardaí, Fire Fighters and others in uniform. We as Prison Officers never get a mention or a second thought. Well if you work in a prison, you are frontline, and I can vouch for that. When you’re daily work is about securing those who have been incarcerated by our judiciary, so that wider society can sleep securely in their beds; this IS frontline work. When you spend your time trying to rehabilitate people who want to be somewhere else and see prison as an extension of their gang hinterland; this is as frontline as it gets – and you delegates can testify to this.

What we do as a workforce is very difficult and challenging.

I was recently asked by a friend if there was anything happening in our prisons? ‘I have heard nothing about them recently’ he said. We’ll just in the last week our members had to react when a young prisoner was stabbed several times and but for the quick action of prison officers and medics who resuscitated him; would have died. He was stabbed by someone, who he felt was his friend and was seen hanging out with him earlier: the core problem seems to have been access to drugs. Just last Saturday a prisoner needed 54 stitches to his face after he was set upon by other inmates – he had just entered the prison the day before. We recently discovered that one of our members was being followed home by criminals because he had been involved in drug interdiction work within the prison.

Yesterday’s Cloverhill assault – wish the Officer well.

But as my friend said, NOTHING happening- just nothing…..all in the same week.

Behind the big walls, the barbed wire and the high fences Prison Officers, working on behalf of the State, face the daily grind of violence, intimidation, drugs, bullying and harassment and accusations of all kinds. Where else would you go to work knowing that these issues are all part of your working day. I want Conference and you Minister, as a representative of the Government, to acknowledge that Prison Officers are Frontline Public Servants, in every sense of the word. Accepting that our occupation is challenging in every respect and that we are a frontline service – we want to make it clear that there is no scope for further cuts in pay or allowances. Can I make that entirely clear – HANDS OFF OUR PAY AND ALLOWANCES? Our so called family friendly rosters require us to provide cover 24 hours night and day, seven days a week, – 52 weeks a year. We view our Rent Allowance and unsocial attendance allowance as pay.

Since the introduction of the austerity measures Prison Officers have had a reduction of 14% in take home pay. New recruits have a further 10% reduction, that’s 24% We are hurting…. Any further efforts to reduce the level of our pay and in particular the pay of Recruit Prison Officers will be resisted strongly. We just want justice and fairness – we have already contributed to the massive savings now being achieved within the public service – and enough is enough. So Minister please advise all your colleagues that we do a difficult job and we, together with our families, can’t take any further cutbacks.

Strategic Plan

On the 3rd of February we were given draft details in relation to the Strategic Plan for the Prison Service. This plan is to be implemented over the next 3 years. It is satisfying to see that the Irish Prison Service proposes to implement many ideas and initiatives which have been identified by this Organisation over the last number of years. But let us be assured that actions speak louder than words. At a recent Irish Penal Reform Trust launch, which I attended, there was a most informative debate where we stressed that the POA would support the Penal Reform Trust on many of its initiatives. Senior Department of Justice Officials at the launch, responded to many of the questions raised, with the answer, ‘there is no money’. We know the country is facing financial challenges, we know that – but surely we can’t give up on a rehabilitative prison system – let’s be very careful with the new ‘thinking’ which is driven by a ‘penny wise pound foolish philosophy’.

If we have a rehabilitate penal system, all the evidence points to this policy saving the exchequer due to, less recidivism, less security and less need for investment in prison services. On the other hand if we don’t continue with recruitment and overall investment in the prison services, we will pay a high price in the short and the long term. You can only generate so much by way of efficiencies, after that you are merely destroying the very fabric of the service we are supposedly developing. We welcome the recent announcement from Government that children will no longer be detained in St Patrick’s Institution, two years from now. Central to any strategic plan must be the full roll out of a proper incentivised regime programme for all Prisons. In such a system staff will play a central role in the rehabilitative regime. Minister two years ago the new wing in Wheatfield was opened with much publicity on the basis that we would introduce an enhanced incentivized regime for the Prisoners being housed there. It is more than obvious now that some local Managers are not supportive of the rollout of the incentive regime program – if they did – we would surely have moved further than the concept of granting an extra visit and an extra phone call a week as a reward good behaviour. It is a pity that the attitude of some local managers stifles progress with this initiative, despite the best efforts of the Prison Officers Association. Delegates we have to ask – Is it simply that the term, incentivized regime, is being used to reduce staffing levels, irrespective of the impact this is having on the overall functioning of the service?

Overcrowding

Delegates, In the past we have highlighted the appalling, cramped conditions of Irish Prisons that are our places of work. A snapshot of the Irish Prison Service on the 29th March this year shows overcrowding in Mountjoy, Dochas Centre, Castlerea, Cork and the Midlands – but if you were to look at the overall figures you would be fooled into believing that there is no real problem – and that this is merely a POA issue – NOT SO. In the Midlands Prison we will have a capacity of 650 from the 1st of May, up from a figure of 624, established on the 27th March and up from a previous capacity of 616. And how many extra cells have been built at the Midlands? NONE. Se we have found an extra 34 spaces by playing around with the figures. We have in the past highlighted how the Irish Prison Service have interchanged the terms ‘cell capacity’ with ‘bed capacity’ in order to massage the figures and make the situation appear better than it really is.

Thankfully the POA is no longer alone and an isolated voice on this issue. From the Minister, the Director General, the Irish Penal Reform Trust, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhumane or Degrading Treatment (CPT), the Inspector of Prisons, the Dáil subcommittee on Penal Reform and the Prison Chaplains are among the bodies to have published reports or addressed the matter of overcrowding in some way in recent times. Acknowledgement of the problem is a start, Delegates, but only a start. The initiatives like the Fines Bill, restorative justice and tagging have proven to be singularly unsuccessful, while our members on the ground are being required to do more with less staff in increasingly dangerous prisons. It is well to illustrate that the gang member or disruptive prisoner who has no intention of complying with the system is able to act with impunity within that system once they are covered by the shroud of overcrowding. Dwindling prison officer numbers and increasing prisoner numbers means that officers supervisory activities can become little more than head counting. The Transformation with its incentivised regime is still some time away and we still have the chaff and the wheat together; there is no clarity so success is impossible. The PASO grades are still not here and there is no recruitment on the horizon. With many of our Prisons under staffed the only thing we have left, Delegates, is the Diminishing Task Lines, or DTLs as we call them, that basically mean that prisoners cannot receive the full range of services on a particular day once the full staffing is not available. However detailed the templates that are devised, there is always some reason or another not to implement the DTLs. Each and every person in this state is being told to cut their cloths etc as to their means – everyone except prisoners.

Prison Officers have never refused to provide services to prisoners, indeed on a daily basis staff go above and beyond their work requirements to ensure that prisons run smoothly. But there is a limit and when we breach these limits, prisons become unsafe for prison officers and prisons alike. What everybody should realise particularly local managers is that the introduction of the DTLs is Irish Prison Service policy. If something happens where somebody gets hurt because the DTLs have not been implemented who do you think will be held accountable? With regard to overcrowding, a more pragmatic solution has been forwarded that includes the construction of a new prison in Cork, having been for a long time the most over crowded prison in the system. The Irish Prison Service has devised an approach to address the overcrowding in Cork Prison through the enhancement of sentence management, prisoner interventions and structured release of suitably risk assessed prisoners into the community. It was envisaged that by the end of January this year that the bed capacity would reduce to 250 and thereafter to 220 once the new Midlands Wing opens in the autumn. These initiatives and objectives are welcomed but we must be wary of the catch. The statutory and non-statutory bodies that are integral to this initiative are themselves under mounting pressure for resources and so it is difficult to see where they will be able to handle the extra work associated with it. On the 10th April 293 were in custody and today there are 283. It is well to remember that a vision without substance is merely a hallucination.

Prison Gangs

Minister, you don’t need me to tell you that prison gangs are active, vicious and very dangerous in most of our prisons. We have heard some evidence of how these gangs operate on the outside in our courts in recent weeks. This is an unsafe situation, which can have dreadful consequences. Aside from our members safety some very compliant prisoners are terrified by these gangs, as they very simply set up systems, which mirror their modus operandi in their communities. The Prison Service seems to largely ignore this most threatening development and it is left pretty much to the individual officer to work it out on a day by day basis. This is unfair and unsafe.

I am asking you here today to put in place an independent review of the development and control of the criminal gangs in our prison system and have clear concise and effective recommendations on how it can be controlled. These gangs are violent, threatening and a major source of fear and stress for the wider prison population – and there are remedies – such as isolation, which can address the situation. If some action is not taken on this issue – we will have increasing problems, which will be more difficult to resolve in the longer term.

Lets face the reality here Minister, ‘These gangs just do not go away you know’

Fighting for fairness

Colleagues we often forget in the trying times like the present we sometimes lose sight of the very significant strides made by Trade Unions, on behalf of workers. However, the fight for fairness, the theme of our conference, is as relevant today as it was at the time of our movement’s beginnings. I recently attended an event hosted by the Irish Penal Reform Trust, entitled, ‘Strengthening Accountability Behind Bars – Rights and Prisoners Complaints’, where the issue of introducing a Prison Ombudsman was favoured by all present, except the Minister’s representative. I believe the introduction of a Prison Ombudsman would be a positive and progressive step. Anybody who makes a genuine honest mistake should have nothing to fear from an independent process; and of course that process must be based on clearly established due process. Delegates you will all be aware of our present Code of Discipline, where virtually no Prison Officers are found innocent, despite their declared position and explanation. This is a totally intolerable and unjust.

We should not see a situation like we did over the past year where a Prison Officer had to go to the Employment Appeals Tribunal, after being ill health retired from the Prison Service to receive their just monetary entitlements. This difficult battle to have an injury on duty recorded to get this former Prison Officer a just and fair entitlement, dragged out unnecessarily despite the fact that all through this time, the authorities had a report from the prisoner admitting an assault on the Officer in question. Minister I ask where is the fairness and transparency in that?

Accusations against staff

Many Prison Officers are subject to disciplinary allegations and investigations of assault. The reality is the more effective a Prison Officer you are in terms of implementing Governors Orders and Prison Rules the more likely you are to be charged with an offence of some kind. This is a game which is played out in prisons, by smart and devious prisoners, who know how to manipulate the system. While we do accept that complaints of assault or abuse have to be investigated, – a stressful process for any Officer – they must be investigated fairly for all parties. Where complaints have been proven to be frivolous in nature the full rigors of the law should be brought to bear. We cannot have a situation where for mischievous reasons a prisoner makes an accusation in the knowledge that he is the winner no matter what is the outcome of the Investigation. We must have a deterrent to prevent such occurrences.

Addressing the Code of Discipline has to be a priority – Three years ago we submitted a claim to have the current Disciplinary Code for Officers replaced by a new set of rules. Some three years later, this has not happened and I must ask why? The current system that finds virtually all Prison Grades who go before an oral hearing under our Code guilty; regardless of the evidence is deplorable. Where would you see written evidence of support against an accusation being disregarded just on the whim of the presiding Governor? This situation is exasperated by the fact, that in the vast majority of disciplinary cases, it is abundantly clear that the punishments being awarded by Prison Governors by far outweigh the offences. Where I ask has the old fair concept of the punishment fitting the offence gone? – When it applies to prison officers. This is a kangaroo court system which must be abolished. We want Fairness in relation to introduction an appropriate mechanism to have work related injuries recorded in a fair and transparent manner. We want to have clear and precise procedures to manage sick leave.

We are currently seeking a fair and equitable scheme for future Prison Officers, in the context of the proposed new legislation on the single Pension Scheme for Public Servants. We believe that we should be in the same category as all other Civil Servants in this new single pension scheme – and that our future colleagues should not suffer because of the contractual and legal issues related to their employment with the Prison Service. While we were given assurances in regard to fast accrual; current proposals would see new recruits again contributing significantly more than other civil servants to their pension during their service. We want an organizational examination on bullying and harassment in the workplace – despite other organizations having such an examination – prison officers are being denied it. Colleagues, this union will continue our fight for fairness on these issues in our workplace, these are very serious issues and it is no more than our members working in the prisons today deserve.

Finally Delegates, due to the recent economic collapse; a certain level of change is inevitable. Change in itself is not an issue for Prison Officers; we have lived through change in the past and we will do so now to protect our future pay and conditions. We continue to denounce those who believe that the solution to the financial crisis is simply to downsize the Public Service. Well delegates it cannot be just that simple. Everybody must share the burden particularly those who have most. Consequently your role as Branch Representatives has never been more demanding. Our members have been placed under increasing financial pressure, with more demanding workloads and decreased resources. Every delegate here carries a great responsibility, not only here today but everyday throughout the year in representing members. As a representative of this organization, you are integral not only to our own recovery but to our very existence and to our future.

I can assure you of our commitment to you all and we will continue to invest in you thus providing an enhanced level of service to our Members.

I want to pay tribute to you all because like you, we your National Officers are determined to protect the legitimate interests of our members. We will with all our efforts protect what we have and we will recover.

While I do sincerely hope that you all enjoy conference we will not lose sight of the obvious fact that the only reason we are here, this year and every year is to represent those who sent us here.

I know there are some difficulties however above all we must stick together both locally and nationally in these difficult times and to quote Mahatma Gandhi, “Unity to be real must stand the severest strain without breaking”
Go raibh mile maith agaibh.

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