Presidential Address to the 72nd Annual Delegate Conference Sligo, 2nd May 2019

May 2, 2019
Good Afternoon 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 Hotel in Sligo. I welcome the Minister for Justice & Equality, Mr. Charlie Flanagan, Director General of the Irish Prison Service, Ms. Caron McCaffrey and her officials. I would also like to thank the Lord Mayor of Sligo, Councilor Rosaleen O’Grady for her address at the opening of our conference this morning. I warmly welcome our colleagues from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who thankfully can still visit us without the need for a visa, our fellow Trade Unionists including those from Europe, invited guests, the national media – and especially our delegates who are present here today. As we had branch elections earlier this year many of you are attending your first conference, so I hope you enjoy the experience and take something from it that will assist in your difficult role as a Staff Representative. I would like to extend the best wishes of everyone here today to our colleagues who have been the victim of serious assault or other traumatic incidents whilst carrying out their duties on behalf of the state. I would like to make special mention of Gavin Foley, Secretary of the Arbour Hill Branch as he battles serious illness. The thoughts and prayers of everybody here today are with Gavin, his family, friends and colleagues. Delegates, this is my first address to Annual Delegate Conference as President but the issues I will be speaking about here this afternoon have been on the agenda for more years that we care to remember.

Director General

I would like to congratulate Ms. McCaffrey on her appointment to her role as Director General of the Irish Prison Service and look forward to working with you and IPS staff on the many critical issues that lie ahead. Director General you have raised the issue of accountability in meetings with our National Officers. You will be well aware that accountability must come from the top down. Policies are not just documents that are taken down, dusted off and used when something goes wrong and you or your managers are looking for someone to scapegoat. Policies are lived every day and when it comes to accountability everybody must first look in the mirror.

Pay

Minister, in September 2017 following negotiations the POA like many other Public Service Unions, signed up to the latest Pay Agreement in good faith. However, this Public Service pay deal must now address the lost spending power of incomes after living costs are factored in and the agreement must now also respond to profession-specific issues and ambitions.” Pay adjustments in the wider economy are now a common occurrence and as all public servants suffered pay cuts at the same time then it is only just and fair that we have our pay restored justly, fairly and at the same time. Minister I have to put it to you that you ensure that Prison Officers are not forgotten here – and if the Labour Court and the Government have recently recognised, in the nurses’ case, that the pay deal is capable of dealing with grade specific claims, a process that had been absent from public service pay determination for over a decade, then surely the grades that we represent are as entitled to an independent pay review as any other group of Public Servants and before the end of this current agreement as now seems to be the case for the nurses. It is imperative that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform engage with the Public Service Unions on pay including the broader implications of the nurses’ Labour Court recommendation.

Recruitment

At our Annual Delegate Conference in 2017 my predecessor Mr. Stephen Delaney spoke about staffing levels and asked the then Minister Ms. Frances Fitzgerald to fight for the Prison Service. She failed to do so. At last year’s Conference Stephen once again spoke about staffing levels and the long awaited Recruitment drive. The net result is that we now operate with unacceptably low staffing levels over the past 12 months. This must be addressed. Some prisons had staffing shortfalls as high as 40 or 50 a day due to the mismanagement of the Additional Hours system. In the Midlands for example, due to this mismanagement, there have been days when the prison operated fully with less than 60% of the agreed staffing levels on duty. This bad planning is surely putting both staff and prisoners at risk. In some prisons Managers continued to exhaust Additional Hours budgets filling all posts at the start of a quarter and then wondering where all the hours had gone. A Regime Management Plan, much lauded by the former Director General was to be put in place in each prison to ensure staff and prisoner safety but alas this Regime Management Plan was and remains nonexistent in most institutions. The reason for this remaining nonexistent is senior prison management being deliberately ignored by local governors. Let’s hope this new brush sweeps this clean! The Irish Prison Service recently began another recruitment campaign for Recruit Prison Officers and whilst the POA welcome any recruitment that will help us achieve something close to the agreed Prison Officer numbers in every prison I must advise caution! Minister, you spoke in March this year at the launch of that particular Recruitment Campaign, lauding the fact that 216 recruit Prison Officers would help to bring the overall staffing compliment of the Irish Prison Service close to full strength. This, minister, would be the case except that neither you or the Irish Prison Service have factored in the vast number of prison staff that can and are retiring having completed their service. The shortfall of staff on the floor in our prisons, and I emphasise ON THE FLOOR as there never seems to be a shortfall of managers, has been and will continue to be a matter of grave concern to the Prison Officers Association.

The NVRU

On the 9th of November last, too much fanfare and mutual backslapping, the National Violence Reduction Unit, was opened by Minister Flanagan at The Midlands Prison. This unit, the first of its type in the country, was designed to house some of the most dangerous and challenging prisoners including those with a history of extreme violence towards staff. Members you are aware that this much-lauded unit caters for just 10 prisoners maximum. Believe me there are a lot more than 10 violent and disruptive prisoners in the system – so Minister, the Prison Officers’ Association is calling on you to invest in initiatives like this and roll out more of these units across the prison estate.

Violence in Prisons

Minister, when I joined the Prison Service over 21 years ago an assault on a Prison Officer would have been the topic of conversation at every meal break for days on end, this regretfully is not so today. The POA has long been calling for introduction of standardized PPE for staff, batons, pepper spray etc. and it is indeed welcome to see that in their Draft Strategy Statement 2019-2021 that the Prison Service is committed to investing in standardized PPE for all staff. Let’s hope they carry out this strategy and give our members the equipment they require and most definitely deserve to ensure their safety at work. Minister, also contained in your latest Strategy Statement and I quote, A more modern technology-driven prison Estate with a focus on – Tackling the increasing threats posed by drone incursions into prisons – Investing in front-of-house security measures to prevent contraband smuggling – Investing in equipment to assist in the search and retrieval of contraband within prisons – We will review and re-launch our ‘Keeping Drugs out of Prisons’ Policy In one week alone in March this year over 50 packages of contraband were either delivered by drones or thrown into the exercise yards in Wheatfield Prison. Without investment in nets for these yards the only workable interim solution is to stop prisoner exercise on Reserve period. Much was made in the National Media 3 weeks ago on the successful prevention of contraband entering Castlerea Prison by drone. In March of this year staff successfully prevented another such attempt in Mountjoy Prison. A prison service spokesperson, as quoted in the Irish Times said, “The Irish Prison Service is exploring a number of technology options to deal with this problem”. Minister I ask what options are these and how soon can we expect them to be rolled out in our prisons? I hope we are not waiting as long for the solution here as we have been for the introduction of mobile phone blockers. The danger that incidents such as these create for Prison Officers is unquantifiable, as officers will put their own Health and Safety at risk in an effort to retrieve this contraband. Up until 2014 our canine unit had the facility to use Patrol Dogs in such situations but some genius decided that staff in blue shirts would be more effective than these highly trained dogs.

Overcrowding

I regretfully must raise the issue of overcrowding. Last year overcrowding made an unwelcome return to our prisons – a problem, which always and ever creates major challenges for prison officers on the ground. Prisoner numbers have continued to rise year on year from 3745 in April 2017 to 3890 in April 2018 and up again to 4049 in April 2019. Taking one landing at the Midlands, initially designed to hold 38 prisoners, it regularly has prisoner numbers in excess of 65 and this is mirrored in many of the prisons. Overcrowding provides the perfect atmosphere for the bully to thrive and exert huge pressure on vulnerable prisoners in particular to traffic in contraband, including weapons and illegal drugs. Serious violence is often part of the scenario here and we prison officers pay the inevitable price. Prisoners’ sleeping on mattresses on floors is becoming an all too common sight again but yet our Open Centers remain below capacity. The Strategy Statement refers to the reopening of the Training Unit, but Minister, not one red cent has been spent on it since the decision was taken to close it in 2016. Minister none of us want a return to the ‘Pack em, Stack em and Rack em days’ of the past, where both prisoners and prison officers pay a heavy price – you should not allow this to happen on your watch.

Mental Health

In the recent recruitment campaign the Irish Prison Service described our prisoners as follows, ” each prisoner’s personal life story is unique, many of our prisoners have mental illnesses, behavioral issues and addictions” 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. According to the former Director General, in May 2018 almost 10% of the 4000 prisoners in custody were deemed to be suffering from severe mental illness. 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”. Unfortunately this continues to be the case, with our members having to deal with these individuals on a daily basis, without having received any related formal training. You will not find an unqualified nurse working with patients in A&E – so why are our members being asked to do a job they have not been trained to do. These prisoners pose a continuing challenge 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. We have also read recently of the possibility of some Irish citizens returning from involvement with ISIS and perhaps spending time in our prisons. And if this happens prison officers could be involved in a deradicalisation process. And are we trained to do this? NO. We have been told that two IPS staff have been so trained, but not prison officers – so once again we will be expected to make it up as we go along – just not good enough.

Staff Recognition & Merit Awards

On a positive note, in late 2018 the Irish Prison Service decided to put a fresh impetus into the Staff Recognition & Merit Awards Policy. This decision was fully backed by the Prison Officers’ Association who has been actively involved in its promotion. It is the intention of the national committee to standardize all aspects of staff recognition from 21, 30 and 40 year Medal Presentations to retirement presentations. To this extent Recognition on Retirement memento is being commissioned by the National Committee. Subject to the agreement of the retiring member this award will be presented to all retirees to formally recognize the service they have given over the course of their career. Should the retiring member wish they can have their retirement marked privately? The culture of blame is all too common in our job when something happens and to date there has been little recognition of what our members do each and every day to put things right. . For too long there has been little or no recognition of staff who have excelled in their job, have compromised their own health and safety for the good of others or have shown initiative or innovation. It had been accepted that only a manager could nominate someone for an award and too often the recognition of these actions has been down to “If the face fits”. The aim of the National Committee is to change this and to inform all staff that anybody can nominate someone for an award. With a proper buy-in by staff to this policy such disregard for these achievements should be a thing of the past. This brings me onto the issue of the 1916 Service Medal. We had a motion passed at our conference in 2017 that all grades represented by the Prison Officers’ Association be awarded the 1916 commemoration medal. I would ask you Minister to intervene in this issue and ensure that our members get the Commemoration Medal for their service to the state similar to all the other uniform bodies that have been awarded this medal. We in the Prison Officers’ Association fully understand and recognize the demanding, challenging and difficult job that our members do on behalf of society and it is only right that we should receive equal recognition. The long awaited awarding of this medal may in some way show our members that their work is not going unnoticed.

Code Of Discipline

Minister, I must raise the Code of Discipline again this year – as it has been on the agenda for the past 10 years. In 2009 the Prison Officers’ Association submitted a claim to the Justice Departmental Council for the establishment of a new Code of Discipline. The reason? No officer has been found NOT guilty of a charge levelled against him or her since 1996. Our present Code of Discipline was described to us by a Senior Counsel as an Appalling Document and no wonder. As Stephen Delaney said last year: “Can you imagine if the courts system worked like this? You would need a prison the size of Offaly to accommodate all those being convicted?” Over the intervening years we have had offerings that were copy and paste from similar uniform occupations from different jurisdictions. In some cases the font or the grades hadn’t even been changed such was the lack of interest in this issue. It was for this reason that when the Civil Service Code was being changed we sought that we should be included so that we would be on a level playing field with all other Civil Servants – given that we are supposed to be evaluated according to the same matrices like PMDS, Circulars, Policies etc. There now seems to be an issue regarding our inclusion with the other Civil Servants under this umbrella. Minister, whatever the difficulty is, could you please address this as a matter of urgency? Twenty-Three years of no Officer being found NOT GUILTY is not a statistic that anyone can stand over and our members who do a very difficult job on behalf of Irish society deserve better. It is a shame that in 2019 that we are still asking for a disciplinary code that offers fair and just procedures. The Civil Service Disciplinary Code was revised, changed, re-issued and implemented within a time frame of little over a year yet we put in our claim ten years ago and are still waiting for this matter to be resolved.

Smoking Policy

It is probably a little bit ironic that as the only smoker on the Administrative Council I am going to speak about the Smoking Policy in our prisons. Smoking in the workplace became illegal in 2004 but Prison Officers continue to be subjected to a smoke filled environment in our workplace. This has been a huge ongoing issue at our conferences with several related motions having been passed over the last few years. Over the past 2 years we have engaged with the Irish Prison Service in an effort to secure full compliance with the legislation but to date this has not happened. The reason? Because of the failure of managers whose responsibility it is to implement this policy. In many institutions, when a halfhearted effort was made to implement some modicum of the policy it was only aimed at staff. Minister, what will it take to have this policy implemented? Compliance orders from the HSA or a serious legal challenge? It is unacceptable that Prison Officers are still in a situation where they can develop serious health issues due to passive smoking. Minister, Director General, I am asking once again, on behalf of our members, that you instruct your managers to fulfill their legal obligation, implement this policy and provide Prison Officers with the same health and safety protection as any other worker in the state.

Conclusion

Delegates, as I said at the outset, this is my first address to Annual Conference so I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support and to let you know what an honour it is to represent the dedicated, hardworking and underappreciated men and women who do so much unseen work on behalf of the state. 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 see further change coming down the line. But remember Delegates, we can influence and continually attempt to influence change – but to do so we have to stick together, Our Unity is our Strength. I will end with an interesting quote from US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided” And so say all of us. Go raibh mile máith agaibh go léir.

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