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Latest: Safety and well being of prison staff is 'paramount' says Justice Minister

By Conor Kane

Update 5.20pm: The Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan told the conference last night that “the safety and wellbeing of prison staff” is of paramount importance to him and the prison service management.

However, he said that the introduction of batons, body armour, body-worn camera and conducted energy weapons were not recommended by the State Claims Agency’s 2016 review of assaults on prison staff, “and so they are not being progressed” by the prison service.

The amount of assaults by prisoners on other prisoners decreased by 27pc, to 417, in 2017 but acts of violence by prisoners on staff was up by 1pc to 104.

“While the reduction in reported inter-prisoner violence is to be welcomed, the fact that decreases in staff assaults are not being seen does, of course, remain a concern,” the minister said.

Any assault on a member of prison staff should be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including the loss of remission, he said.

The prison service is to conduct a review of the prison disciplinary system later this year.

Update 3pm: Prison officers have claimed that jail inmates have cast aside an “unwritten rule” that existed in the past which held that female prison officers would not be assaulted.

With the level of assaults on prison staff on the rise, a number of incidents have taken place recently involving female officers, the POA’s annual conference has heard.

Statistics show that 104 assaults took place on officers over the last year, but this does not include incidents where staff are injured when intervening in disputes between prisoners.

“Nonetheless, our people are being injured and in some cases losing their jobs arising from it,” POA deputy general-secretary Jim Mitchell said.

[quote]We want them [prison service] to arm our people with proper equipment like pepper spray, body cameras, batons, so they can adequately protect themselves and also be able to fend off any accusations of false allegations against them.[/quote]

There were 22 separate assaults in the Midlands Prison and Mountjoy Prison over the Christmas period alone, Mr Mitchell said, while assaults on women officers are on the rise.

“It’s much more so than before. In days gone by, we never encountered anything like that level of assaults on female prison officers. It was always an unwritten rule that female prison officers weren’t touched but they (prisoners) seem to have set that rule aside.”

One female officer in the Midlands Prison was sexually assaulted, he said, while an officer in Mountjoy had the back of her hair grabbed before she was smashed off a wall.

Other instances included a prisoner self-harming and throwing his blood over an officer, while in Cork a staff member had his car burned out in front of his house.

Director-general of the Irish Prison Service, Michael Donnellan, said there were 104 assaults by prisoners on officers last year, as well as 72 injuries on officers because of interventions.

He said arming officers with batons or patrol dogs would not “help build up a relationship” between staff and inmates and that a decision by the service, following an assessment by the State Claims Agency, was that batons or patrol dogs “are not appropriate in the Irish Prison Service”.

Earlier: Assaults on prison officers has become ‘accepted norm’

By Conor Kane

Prison officers believe the rule of law has “disappeared” from prisons and assaults on officers have become an accepted norm, according to the president of their representative body.

Speaking last night as officers gathered in Kilkenny for their annual conference, Prison Officers’ Association president Stephen Delaney criticised the Government for not allowing dogs or batons and the removal of remission to be used as a way of enforcing rules in prison.

He called for an independent analysis of the assaults being committed by inmates against staff, which will lead to prisons being a safer place to work.

Mr Delaney said that when he joined the Prison Service over 30 years ago, the assault of a prison officer was “a rarity” and something that reverberated around every prison in Ireland.

“The current amount and seriousness of assaults on our members is simply not acceptable or sustainable. Many of our officers now believe that the rule of law in prisons has disappeared and that the era of appeasement for the offender is now fully embedded,” he said.

Since members held their 2017 conference last May, a “wide range of assaults” have been experienced by staff, he said.

“In June three officers attacked while on escort; in July (Cloverhill), two staff were injured, which involved one recruit ingesting blood in a vicious attack; in August, an officer in Cork was attacked and hospitalised with a head injury; in September, also in Cork, a prison officer’s car was petrol bombed in front of their home; in October (Mountjoy), two officers were attacked and one bitten in a serious assault; in November (Midlands), an officer was attacked and sustained a head injury: in December (Mountjoy), a female officer was grabbed from behind by the hair and smacked off a wall; and in the Midlands prison, a female officer was sexually assaulted.”

Also during December, urine was thrown over staff and an officer was attacked with an iron bar, according to Mr Delaney, while in January a Mountjoy prisoner spat in an officer’s face.

[quote]When these statistics, especially on assaults, dip from the ‘outrageous’ to the simply ‘unbelievable’ the minister of the day will normally tell us ‘what great progress is being made’ and that it ‘represents a significant reduction of instances of violence upon the dedicated working prison officers of the service’.[/quote]

“And so it goes on for another year and sometimes another minister, while individual prison officers and their families are trying to cope with all that has occurred.”

Mr Delaney called on Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, who is addressing the conference today, to announce an independent analysis of assaults on members.

“This analysis should lead to recommendations on how our members can experience a safe place of work. Surely this is not too much to ask in 2018,” he said, adding it is not acceptable to describe assaults as “a risk of the job”.

“In recent years, practical solutions that form part and parcel of prison work in other jurisdictions, such as conflict resolution, dogs, and batons being part of the uniform, were unilaterally rejected by our employer.

“One of the practical methods of punishment, which forms part of the prison rules, was the withdrawal of remission.”

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.