Written Answers. - Prison Staff.

Jack Wall

Question:

78 Mr. Wall asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his plans regarding the teaching staff in Fort Mitchel and the Curragh prisons, which he proposes to close down in January 2004, and with the teaching staff in Loughan House and Shelton Abbey, which he proposed to remove from the remit of the Prison Service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28266/03]

The Deputy will be aware of the position, as indicated in several other questions answered today, regarding my proposals for the application of more efficient staffing arrangements in the Prison Service, and the elimination of overtime. Senior officials from the Irish Prison Service has held frequent meetings with the Prison Officers Association, or POA, during 2003, and protracted negotiations have been conducted during the course of the last few months with a view to securing staff agreement for the measures necessary to reduce prison service costs.

While staff did not vote in favour of the proposals, my preferred position remains agreement with the POA on a reasonable and sustainable cost structure for the operation of our prisons. I want to move forward on the basis of consensus along the lines of that reached in 2002, which identified an annual hours approach as offering the best prospect of achieving a set of arrangements that meets the needs of both sides. If an agreed way forward is not possible, I will proceed to give effect to the decision taken by the Government on 11 November 2003 in this matter progressively to implement from 1 January 2004 certain cost reduction measures, including: the mothballing of the Fort Mitchel and the Curragh places of detention; and the making of arrangements for the transformation of the open centres at Loughan House, Blacklion, County Cavan, and Shelton Abbey, Arklow, County Wicklow, into post-release centres for the reintegration into society of prisoners on conditional temporary release.
In the event that the mothballing of Fort Mitchel and the Curragh places of detention has to be proceeded with, I am aware of the implications for the positions of some of the teaching staff of the two centres. I can also confirm to the Deputy that I have received detailed submissions on behalf of the staff of the education units of each institution expressing their serious concerns about the threat to the future of the two centres.
I wish to reiterate that I do not want to close or even mothball Fort Mitchel or the Curragh places of detention. However, if the Prison Officers Association is unwilling to agree reasonable terms for the operation of prisons on an economically sustainable basis, it is a course that I will reluctantly have to pursue, along with other measures.
The members of the teaching staff of Fort Mitchel and the Curragh, who have been duly assigned there by County Cork VEC and County Kildare VEC, respectively, are paid by those vocational education committees and are not on the payroll of the Irish Prison Service. Transfers to the education units of other prisons of those teachers cannot be advanced by the Irish Prison Service as a matter of course, even to the education unit of another nearby prison, since that would involve transfers of individual teachers from one VEC to another. The Deputy will be aware that those prisons nearest to both Fort Mitchel and the Curragh are in the catchment areas of vocational education committees other than those of County Cork and County Kildare. I understand that, while it is ultimately a matter for the Department of Education and Science, the redeployment or secondment of full-time teachers between different vocational education committees must be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
The teaching staff of Fort Mitchel, in common with the education units of several of the other prisons, is composed of part-time as well as full-time teachers. In the mainstream education system, where schools close, I understand that it has not generally proved possible to arrange or negotiate a suitable global mechanism to secure redeployment or secondment of part-time teachers between different vocational education committees. In closure scenarios, job losses can therefore arise.
If the failure of the POA to reach agreement causes the mothballings to proceed, the prisoner population of the two institutions will be transferred to one or more of the other prisons and places of detention, as may be appropriate. As there will therefore be no reduction in the overall number of prisoners in custody, the overall allocation of teachers to the various vocational education committees to support the delivery of education programmes in the prisons, as determined by the Department of Education and Science, will remain at its current level.
Against a background of the various factors mentioned, it would be the intention of the Irish Prison Service to offer every possible assistance to the County Cork and County Kildare vocational education committees and other relevant vocational education committees to enable retention, to the greatest extent possible, within the prison education system of all teachers employed at Fort Mitchel and the Curragh.
As regards the teaching staffs at the other institutions mentioned by the Deputy, namely, Loughan House and Shelton Abbey, the position is that, as stated in the terms of the Government decision, the Irish Prison Service will, in the absence of agreement on a way forward, be making arrangements for the transformation of those two open centres into post-release centres for the reintegration into society of prisoners on conditional temporary release. Open centres play an important role in our penal system and will continue to do so. I support the work of open centres and acknowledge the efforts of many people in Loughan House and Shelton Abbey over the years. They provide a necessary alternative to dealing with those prisoners for whom the traditional high walls and internal movement restrictions are not appropriate.
In open centres, reliance is placed on the prisoners transferred there not to abscond. The overall focus is either one of preparation for release of prisoners coming to the end of their sentence or of the containment of prisoners considered a low security risk but not yet suitable for release. I therefore see an enhanced role for the open centre in the Irish criminal justice system, and ideally that would include more open regimes, either separately or as self-contained elements within larger institutions on a model like that of the Grove in Castlerea Prison, where prisoners are accommodated in self-contained houses.
My Department is carefully examining the detailed arrangements which need to be put in place to give effect to the Government decision on the transformation of Loughan House and Shelton Abbey into post-release centres. That will entail careful consideration of what best meets offenders' needs and those of the Irish Prison Service and will include consideration of the mechanisms for retention, to the greatest extent possible, of the education services currently provided at Loughan House and Shelton Abbey by County Cavan and County Wicklow vocational education committees, respectively. I assure the Deputy that, whatever is put in place, offenders will not be disadvantaged by the move. I envisage offenders in Loughan House and Shelton Abbey enjoying the same conditions which currently prevail.