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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 12 Mar 1986

Vol. 364 No. 8

Private Notice Question. - Arbour Hill Prison Riot.

asked the Minister for Justice if in view of the riot which occurred at Arbour Hill Prison yesterday and the subsequent escape of three prisoners, and because of the public anxiety and concern arising from these serious developments, he will make a statement on the matter.

I would like first of all to give the House a brief account of the sequence of events at Arbour Hill Prison yesterday.

At about 11.40 a.m. 24 prisoners from the segregation unit set up at the prison to accommodate offenders identified as having AIDS antibodies, attempted to escape from the prison. The prisoners first barricaded the entrance to the prison's East Wing to prevent access by staff and then broke through the ceiling to the roof. They made their way from there to the roof of the adjoining garrison chapel.

Six of the prisoners jumped from the roof to the chapel grounds. Two of these suffered leg injuries which rendered them immobile and a third was recaptured by gardaí who by that time had arrived at the prison in response to an alarm call. The other three prisoners made good their escape.

The remaining prisoners started to throw slates from the chapel roof at gardaí and prison staff. During the course of this, one member of the prison staff was injured by a slate thrown by a prisoner. Six offenders sustained injuries requiring hospital treatment during the incident yesterday.

While some damage was done to the roof of the chapel, damage caused to the prison itself was minimal. I am awaiting a detailed report from the Governor on the incidents and the Garda are searching for the escapees.

The House has previously been informed of the background to the use of part of Arbour Hill prison to segregate offenders with AIDS antibodies. The decision to segregate offenders in this category was taken principally for two reasons, first, to deal with the problem of unease among the general prison population and, second, to enable the restrictions and precautions which medical advice indicates are desirable to be applied easily.

During their protest yesterday afternoon the prisoners complained about a lack of education and work facilities. As regards education facilities, the situation is that the requirements of offenders in the unit have been udner assessment recently by teachers at the prison so as to establish the education levels of the offenders. This was necessary so as to determine the type of classes appropriate to their needs. Two rooms had been set aside for education for this group of offenders and classes were due to start this week.

The provision of work facilities, however, poses a particular problem because it would be unwise to allow offenders with AIDS antibodies access to equipment and machinery which could cause cuts and consequent spillages of blood.

Attempts have been made to introduce work, some of it of a purely therapeutic kind, which would not involve, or would at least reduce to a minimum, this danger, but the prisoners did not show sufficient interest in the types of work which were made available. A further attempt is to be made shortly with the introduction of wood polishing and I hope that this will be successful. But again, of course, the prison authorities have, for obvious reasons, to be careful in allowing the use of various substances. It is unfortunately the case that there are severe limitations to the type of work which can be introduced in view of the difficulty I have outlined.

I should mention also that instruction in physical education is available and used externsively by the prisoners.

The House will appreciate that the presence of a substantial group of offenders, all of whom had drug problems and who now have to cope with the knowledge that they have AIDS antibodies, clearly causes difficulties for the prison service and these are of a kind which did not previously have to be contended with. I am sure the House will acknowledge the difficulties posed for prison staff and management and their efforts, on behalf of society, to cope with them as effectively as possible.

The wing at Arbour Hill was chosen to accommodate these offenders because the prison itself is modern and has good facilities. The regime being operated there was intended to be as humane as possible in the difficult circumstances which applied and every effort will continue to be made to provide the widest possible range of facilities for offenders there. It will be clear, however, from yesterday's events that the requirements of safety and good order will have to be a special consideration in developments at the wing.

The Minister said that two rooms have been set aside for educational facilities starting next week. I am sure he is aware of the complaints made by the protesting prisoners, some of which seem to be based on reasonable grounds specifically with regard to the inadequacy of the educational facilities and the opportunity to work now being provided for these prisoners and also the inadequacy of medical care. Would he care to comment on the aspect of the inadequacy of medical care? An advertisement has been placed, I understand, for a general medical director. I note that the Minister is planning to maintain the policy of segregation. He made that very clear. Does he think this a necessary or wise policy in the circumstances? Does he have available to him medical advice which might help him to sort out this problem, since there is no medical director? I understand that in other prisons there is not segregation, certainly not to the same degree.

In relation to the availability of work opportunities, I dealt with that quite fully, I thought, in my answer. I fully appreciate the difficulty which is there among a group of people who are in any case in a stressful situation and who would need an occupation, not purely for the therapeutic effects of it by largely for that reason. As I pointed out, there are restrictions on the kinds of work activities which are appropriate. We must ensure, and Deputy Woods would agree with this, that we avoid situations in which the possibility of infection or of the spread of infection could come about.

As far as the educational facilities are concerned, I am aware that there have been complaints about what were regarded as inadequate facilities in Arbour Hill. The difficulty goes back to the time when we had to make space available for the group of prisoners about whom I am talking. It was inevitable that that would interrupt or curtail some of the other facilities available in the prison. I am very concerned to make sure that we restore the educational facilities as quickly as possible. As I pointed out we have set aside two rooms for educational activities for this group of prisoners. They have been in the course of being assessed during last week in order to identify what kinds of classes would be most appropriate for them. We were moving to deal with that area of activity, to define the needs and to meet them in so far as we could.

I am not sure what Deputy Woods has in mind when he refers to what he calls the inadequacy of medical treatment. There is no inadequacy in the medical treatment of those who have been identified as being antibody positive in relation to AIDS. On medical advice we are taking the steps that are open to us to take in that regard. None of the medical advice that I have seen or heard about is presented as being definitive, but we are doing what we can within the context and along the lines of the advice that has been given.

Finally, Deputy Woods raised the question as to whether segregation is necessary or wise and if there is medical advice to that effect. Given what is known about AIDS antibody positive prisoners — and I must emphasise that we are talking about people who are antibody positive; we are not talking about AIDS sufferers — our advice includes a strong recommendation that antibody positive people should be segregated from the rest of the offenders and we moved them to Arbour Hill. We had better and more modern facilities there to look after those people. This is based on advice; it is not simply a "top of the head" decision.

A final supplementary question, please.

Would the Minister agree that when prisoners have completed their sentences they will return into the community and they will certainly not be segregated there? I appreciate that that is a completely separate question. Could I ask the Minister to look again fairly deeply at the degree of segregation and at the whole medical approach at this stage and see if the decisions taken earlier were, with hindsight, the wisest ones? Would he see if the problem cannot be handled otherwise than with the degree of segregation which was introduced? As the Minister knows, we are all advised that it is only through blood or sexual relationships that the transfers can occur. That would seem to limit such cases.

I appreciate that the Minister is fresh to this post. There was no trouble previously in Arbour Hill and it could have been regarded as a model prison. Since there have been long term prisoners there it has had a very good record. What has happened to bring about such a radical change?

The Deputy should not make a speech.

Would the Minister reexamine that situation?

The question of looking again in depth at the decision to provide separate facilities for these prisoners does not arise. The matter is kept under continuous review. It is constantly the subject of medical advice. It is not as if we just turn off our consideration of this problem at 5 o'clock in the evening and do not look at it again for another week. It is constantly kept under review. As to the second part of the question——

I was just asking you in your new position as Minister.

Deputy Woods need have no fears on that score. The matter is constantly kept under review both by myself and by my officials. As to the previous good history of Arbour Hill, that is the case. The difficulty arises because we now have in Arbour Hill, as I said earlier, a group of prisoners who are in a more stressful condition than prisoners generally. That is something that will have to be taken into account both in the medical approach to those prisoners and on the security side.

I wish to raise on the Adjournment the closure of McCormack's factory in Killeshandra, County Cavan.

I will communicate with the Deputy.