Address by Stephen Delaney, President, Prison Officers’ Association, Annual Delegate Conference 8th May 2014.
• Mayor Marcella McGarry
• Our invited guests from sister associations
• Our Service Providers
• Our invited guests from the National media
• Cead Mile Failte to you all
Minister Alan Shatter had agreed to attend and address our Conference. Events emerged yesterday which has led to his resignation. We currently await the announcement of the new Minister and following his/her appointment we will be requesting a meeting so that we can highlight the very challenging issues confronting our members and the Prison Service. We very specifically want to meet the Minister to raise our serious concerns about the Prisoner Complaints Procedures operating in the Prison Service. This procedure is weighted to favour the complainant and we are very unhappy about this. More about this later.
Delegates, the past year has been very challenging for the Union. Since our last Conference much time and effort has been devoted to the negotiations; which eventually led to the acceptance and implementation of the Haddington Road Agreement. The reasons we accepted such an agreement was that arising from cost savings of 12.4 million for the Prison Service we could and did protect our pay from further cuts while also restoring the 10 per cent reduction in pay for new entrants. Constant engagement has taken place with the Irish Prison Service on all aspects of this agreement and while its been very demanding; I want to acknowledge the contribution of our members for their patience and understanding in implementing difficult measures.
Your contribution and leadership as local representatives has been essential. Indeed it is indicative of our overall performance that through all the changes which have been implemented, we have had little recourse for third parties.
This country, by all accounts, is well on the road to recovery. The DPER have confirmed that over 1 billion savings will be achieved from the payroll during the lifetime of this agreement. The ESRI is forecasting growth of between 3 and 4 percent over the next two years. Over 40 per cent of private sector firms have negotiated pay increases. Various Ministers have suggested possible tax cuts in the very near future. We as Prison Officers have paid our dues and we have made a very significant contribution to the national recovery. We have taken huge pay cuts and this has placed a very heavy burden on us as individuals and more especially on our families.
Let’s hope our new Minister will recognise the input from Prison Officers and their families and we are not forgotten. It is only right and to be expected that the Government now honour previous commitments made to restore the pay for hard pressed workers, which include Prison Officers. We read about this most welcome and continuing recovery on a daily basis and I want to assure our members here today that the Prison Officers’ Association will pursue all avenues necessary and open to us to restore our pay entitlements, which have been denied to us in recent years. The economic crisis is over we are told; so let’s now have our pay cuts restored.
Last twelve Months
For so long delegates, we Prison Officers have had no recognition either inside or outside prison walls for the job we do on behalf of the state. This is something we have long campaigned for and we are now pleased to have the introduction and rollout of the Merit Award Scheme, as it provides for the recognition of Staff on completion of long service or indeed when they perform acts or deeds, which would be described above and beyond the call of duty. We as a Union have engaged constructively with the Irish Prison Service and made progress on many issues and policies directly affecting our members. However, there are regrettably some serious issues, which have to be addressed. Last year the then Minister announced the introduction of a Complaints Procedure for Prisoners. We supported this initiative in principle. However, over the past twelve months there have been numerous complaints issued against staff with 94 per cent of the complaints having no case to answer. This Complaints Procedure is not fair and balanced, particularly towards Prison Officers. A Complaints Procedure must be fair for all stakeholders including Prison Officers.
We have rights and it cannot be right that in a particular instance following an investigation, where no case was found to answer by either the Gardai, Prison Management or an Investigator, a further appeal for an investigation was initiated on foot of direction from the Inspector of Prisons. In this case we had to get our legal advisors involved and get this procedure stopped. In another case video evidence was viewed by a senior manager which exonerated an Officer completely, yet that same senior manager because of these procedures, had to request that a full investigation be carried out into the alleged incident. Where is the fairness for the Officer concerned, the logic or the rational for the consequential cost to the taxpayer? That Officer is here in this hall today and I want to congratulate you on your professionalism during this difficult time and I want to assure you of our continued support regarding this issue. In this case, this Officer has not yet been given the full file and is not in a position to pursue the vexatious nature of the allegation. How can an Officer ascertain if a complaint was vexatious if they are not issued with the complete findings? When a complaint is found to be vexatious in nature Management should support the Officer and the complainant should be subject to disciplinary rules of the Prison. In such instances the complainant should be pursued through the judicial system. An Officers job or career prospects could be in jeopardy. All we want is fairness and support from Management in doing our job properly.
Prison Life Today
All of you will be aware that the Report on the tragic death of Gary Douche while in prison was published last week. The report stated, “The Commission recognises also that the Prison system is frequently overwhelmed and under – resourced”. Delegates, what has changed since 2006. Thankfully overcrowding has been tackled in the main penal institutions like Mountjoy. However we still have significant overcrowding in both women’s prisons, Dochas and Limerick – while Castlerea and Cork currently operate beyond bed capacity. In 2007 a year after Gary Douche died there were 3,200 prisoners in custody. Today that figure has increased to 4,065, an increase of over 20 per cent. Coupled with this, there are currently 688 on temporary release and 545 on trial or remand. This makes the total number in the penal system 4,888. This is a massive increase in prisoner numbers compared to a total daily average of 3,321 in custody in 2007. With contracting resources there simply isn’t the capacity to cater for such increasing numbers in custody. Where does this level of increase in occupancy take us – it just can’t continue without planning at management level and a review of facilities and resources. The Incentivised Regime Programme is an example of a good programme poorly administered. This scheme as currently operated in certain institutions, is merely a paper exercise for over worked class officers and is doomed for failure, unless a coherent approach is taken by local management in these locations.
Violent and disruptive prisoners have to be managed better within the prison estate. Assaults on staff continue, only last week in Mountjoy there were three separate incidents of assault, two Officers had boiling water thrown over them, another was struck viciously about the head and the other had a blood spillage smeared over his face. Only last Monday an Officer was bitten by a prisoner which required the Officer to have hospital treatment. Where else in the State is this type of behaviour a feature of a worker’s daily life. It was regrettable but necessary that the assistance of the Health and Safety Authority was required arising from management’s failure to deal with violent inmates within the Wheatfield Complex. The fact is Delegates, that Risk Assessments and the implementation of Diminishing Task Lines are a key feature of prison life for both management and staff in most prisons today. The Safety Management System has been devised and rolled out. Local managers must be instructed that there is a requirement to only carry out tasks where there is sufficient manpower to do the job in a safe environment. All stakeholders, including those in custody, should be aware you can only cut your coat according to your cloth.
Delegates, there is also an enormous task ahead with regard to creating a workplace where staff are treated with dignity and respect and are valued as employees. This work continues but it must be made clear that local managers must support and ensure the success of the Dignity at Work Initiative as Dignity at Work is not an optional extra, but a basic entitlement for all staff who do such a difficult job on behalf of State. Even for Portlaoise Prison, the highest security prison in Europe, there is a proposal to withdraw the Environmental Allowance for staff within. It is not because the subversive prisoners have gone away, it is because the prison numbers have increased to include the most dangerous criminal underworld within the state.
Delegates, in particular for those in Portlaoise, I can assure you that we have and will continue to provide all the necessary resources to oppose such derisory and unnecessary actions of the state. Delegates, all of the above issues have led to an environment where the Officer is hamstrung in doing his duties in an effective and rehabilitative way. He is no longer the most important person in the operation of the prison. The system is balanced in favour of the inmate. We have to pull it back and give the Officer the capacity and the ability to create an environment where good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour is properly addressed, thereby creating a positive working atmosphere for staff.
In terms of funding and recruitment it is essential that the Prison Service is supported sufficiently. The Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest should be discarded for the long term prospects of the Prison Service. Politicians see no votes in prisons but they should realise that without investment in our Prison Service; we will all pay a much higher societal price in the short and long term. You can only generate so much by way of efficiencies before you destroy the very fabric of the service we are supposedly developing.
Delegates the theme of our Conference this year is as it was last year “Protecting Prison Officers”.
Bearing in mind the circumstances I hope that you share our view that we have managed to protect Prison Officers pay and conditions. Next year will be as equally challenging for the Union; for all of us. I have no doubt we will again experience a massive shortage of funding, despite the recovery which is more than evident. The public service and the public servant will continue to pay a high price for the failings and recklessness of others.
Delegates, we will not become complacent and together we will tackle the major issues which are on the horizon such as:-
• Regaining lost ground in terms of our pay.
• The pursuance of career development and promotional opportunities for staff; in particular we will ensure provision of career opportunities for all PASO Grades.
• We will pursue the retention of the Rent Allowance and Pension arrangements for new recruits.
Finally delegates to quote Gandhi “strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indominatable will”. With your assistance and support delegates we can and we will succeed.
We have a lot to do, let’s get to work.