We thank the joint committee for this opportunity to make a presentation on the issue of penal reform as a follow-up to our written presentation which we sent to the committee on Monday. We last made a presentation to a justice committee on 16 November 2011.
The Prison Officers Association, POA, was established in 1947 and we now represent up to 3,200 Prison Service grades based at prisons all around the country. Our written submission includes items on reducing the number of people who get custodial sentences, conditions of people in prisons, solitary confinement, post-release programmes, mental health, drugs, gangs and violence. We will deal briefly with each issue this morning and then will be pleased to take questions from members of the committee.
We want a prison system which rehabilitates the prisoner, as we have stated in the past. It should assist him or her in dealing with the past and engaging in responsible citizenship in the future in an environment that is safe for both prison officers and prisoners alike. This rehabilitation happens for many prisoners but regretfully not for all and the onset of gang culture in the prison system is certainly not helpful in this regard. There are many reasons sufficient progress on rehabilitation is not being made, such as lack of motivation by the authorities and a major lack of interest by wider society. We are key stakeholders in this entire system and want to see a progressive prison system built today that we can all be proud of in the future, as well as a Prison Service that has addressed many of the challenges and difficulties that we currently face. Many of the following areas must be addressed to achieve a service of which we can all be proud.
First, the number of people who get custodial sentences must be reduced. While the reduction of people being committed to prison is largely beyond the remit of the Prison Officers Association, our members at the coalface must deal with the consequences of system failures such as prison overcrowding when it hits the system. We have had to deal with this difficulty numerous times in the past. A snapshot of the prison population will show that on 3 March 2017, a total of 3,815 prisoners were in custody with 253 on temporary release and 543 on trial or remand. That is a total of 4,204 prisoners in the system, which includes 87 prisoners on life sentences residing in the community and 28 prisoners residing in the Central Mental Hospital. The construction of additional cell spaces in the Midlands and Wheatfield prisons, as well as refurbishments in Mountjoy and Limerick prisons, the new prison in Cork and the re-designation of St. Patrick's Institution have helped to alleviate the difficulty of overcrowding. It should however be noted that the imminent closure of the training unit on a temporary basis has reduced the prison estate capacity by 96 spaces. This is a matter of concern to us. It is also noteworthy that there is a further disparity between what the late Inspector of Prisons viewed as bed capacity, and what the Prison Service figures show as bed capacity, to a quantum of 97. These numbers, if applied, represent a return to over 100% occupancy in the prison system and a consequent return to the competition for resources that blighted the early part of this century in the penal system.
Another area to address is conditions of people in prisons. The incentivised regime protocol, IRP, was introduced to the IPS following proposals put forward by the POA at the national pay talks for the public service agreement 2010 to 2014, the Croke Park agreement. We outlined to management the benefits of the introduction of an incentivised regime programme to the Irish Prison Service. The POA sought an incentivised regime, which would form part of the agreement. As for the main benefits of the incentivised regime protocol, it links prisoner behavioural patterns to incentives. Prisoners who engage in work, training and meaningful activities will be rewarded. In addition, it includes meaningful sentence management plans, has the potential to reduce the number of prisoners on protection, prioritises prisoners who wish to engage positively and provides a safety net for prisoners who refuse to engage. It also provides a consistent approach to prisoner rehabilitation across the estate, demonstrates the advantages to positive engagement within the prison communities and links the behaviour in prison of individuals to accepted norms in society. It brought in an introduction of personal officers to explain the IRP to prisoners, to encourage individuals' involvement, to lend support and to aid their personal development.
It is the case in every other area of our society, whether it be the work place in the private sector or the work place in the public sector, that performance relates to reward whether this is by way of financial remuneration or promotion. If we are going to manage custodial sentences in a way which encourages and supports prisoners in their endeavours to live law-abiding and purposeful lives as valued members of society, then we must bring some form of normality to that process and match performance and behaviour to reward. We believe there is an opportunity to transform areas of the prison estate into units of therapy and education, UTEs, which has been successful in other jurisdictions, in particular the Villabona project in Spain. This model transforms prisons into educational spaces, using an alternative model that immerses prisoners in an educational environment that teaches skills and, more importantly, values such as empathy and kindness. This reduces violent behaviour and lowers the rates of re-offending. The units of therapy and education have created micro-societies that enable inmates to learn to live as they would outside the prison walls.
We have met Mr. Faustino Zapico García from Spain, who developed the Villabona project, on a number of occasions in conjunction with Ashoka Ireland, as part of the exploratory work as to whether the stakeholders in the Irish Prison Service would consider the setting up of UTEs in the Irish Prison System. We viewed this as a worthwhile project and arranged for Mr. García to address the justice trade council of the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, CESI, in Brussels. which is a European affiliate trade union body in which we are involved.
We arranged a visit to Grendon Prison in September 2014 through our colleagues in the Prison Officers Association in the UK. We were accompanied by Mr. Rory O’Carroll from Ashoka and by Mr. Eoin Carroll, social policy and communications co-ordinator of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Dublin. The Grendon regime is unique as the therapeutic programme is the core work of the establishment. The POA sees merit in exploring further the concept of therapeutic programmes and we will continue to explore the possibility of having these programmes introduced into the prison system.
There is still a huge over-reliance in the prison system on closed prisons, despite the recommendations from the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality's Report on Penal Reform in March 2013. This report was clear in its recommendation that the proportion of open prisons should be increased. On Thursday, 16 March 2017, there were 3,793 people in custody and only 235 of those were in open centres.
Solitary confinement is another area to address. A Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement, published in 2008 by Dr. Sharon Shalev, identifies a number of common themes on solitary confinement. It finds that solitary confinement is an extreme and potentially harmful measure and should only be used in the most exceptional of cases. Periods in solitary confinement should be for the shortest period possible and prisoners should be held for that time in decent conditions and offered meaningful human contact and access to purposeful lives. The recommendations made include procedural safeguards, directions as to the placement of an individual in solitary confinement, the physical conditions and regime of solitary confinement and the health of the individual. The POA supports the conclusions in Dr. Shalev’s sourcebook. Solitary confinement is not used in the prison system and we have been consulted on and issued with the Irish Prison Service policy on minimum out of cell time that incorporates rules 44 and 45 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, that is, the Mandela rules. Our support for the conclusions of Dr. Shalev is practical and based on the creation of a safer environment for all.
Post-release programmes are another area to address. The only real tool to prevent recidivism is the availability of positive activity for an individual following discharge, assisting him or her in the avoidance of further criminality. A person who goes to meaningful work every day while also providing for dependants is less likely to revert to previous criminal activity. The provision of such support is not the responsibility of any single group or organisation but prison officers hold the view that we must find some form of a multidisciplinary approach, which supports the individual willing to make an effort. The act of going to work every day and returning at the end of it to a normal setting is one that many of us take for granted. However, most of those in custody will not have come from that background and the normalisation of the act of going to work for many individuals is a learned function. We therefore believe that the decision of the Minister to close the training unit, albeit temporarily, represents a retrograde step in the penal system, as it was a semi-open, drug-free prison. Prisoners were going to work in the community on a daily basis and returning at the end of their working day to an establishment separate to the main prison complex in Mountjoy.
Mental health is another area to address. A study of male remand prisoners in 2005 showed that 7.6% of them exhibited indications of psychiatric illness. Many prisoners commit crimes while suffering from a psychiatric illness and end up incarcerated in the prison system where there are insufficient resources to address their illnesses. This, in turn, can make them volatile and unpredictable while in prison and exacerbate their symptoms. Prisoners with mental health issues are more likely to assault staff, particularly if their psychiatric illness is combined with a drug problem. These prisoners require additional supervision resources compared with prisoners who do not present with psychiatric illness. The Prison Officers Association believes that diverting people to appropriate care facilities in the community earlier in the judicial process is more likely to yield positive dividends than having these people go through the trauma of incarceration and then being transferred to the appropriate facility. We are undoubtedly approaching the treatment and rehabilitation of such prisoners in reverse order and this needs to be reviewed.
Drugs and gangs are another area to address. The misuse of drugs in prisons continues to be a common theme running through many of the challenges we face.
Compliant prisoners are often put under pressure to get their families to bring drugs into prisons. This can be done to pay off a drug debt or simply because of their compliant profile as they are not suspected by prison staff of being involved in trafficking. The punishment for refusal can be severe, and thereafter the prisoner who refuses will probably end up on voluntary protection. Very often, those at the top of the drug trade in prisons are involved in drug trafficking as a display of their power within the facility. The much-publicised gang war that has claimed lives also has its protagonists within the prison system. At the other end of the spectrum, there is always a market in prison for drugs, and many prisoners commence their drug-taking, leading to their consequent addiction, while in prison. While achieving an entirely drug-free estate is very difficult, the establishment of drug-free areas within estates is practical and has the support of all the stakeholders.
Regrettably, the issue of violence in prisons continues, with a number of very serious incidents involving assaults on prison staff. In a recent analysis conducted by the State Claims Agency, the projected number of assaults by prisoners on prison staff for 2017 was estimated at 107. This is based on a number of direct physical assaults between 2011 and 2015 of 475. The nature of these assaults included concussion, lacerations, cuts, fractures, burns and bites. Most of these injuries were to the head and face, thereby leaving permanent reminders to the injured officers of the incidents. The starkest statistic is that 77.9% of staff who responded had been physically assaulted by prisoners in the course of their operational duties. The level of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults is much higher and represents only those assaults that are reported or observed by prison staff. The records for 2013 show 604 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults. To have an optimal work environment, the challenges these assaults manifest need to be addressed in a consistent manner. The absence of adequate protection measures that are successfully used in other jurisdictions, such as batons, incapacitating spray and body cameras, is another factor that undermines staff confidence.
Regarding staffing issues, 2017 is the first time since 2010 that recruit prison officers are entering the Irish Prison Service, and this is to be welcomed. The Prison Service currently has a shortfall of 230 staff, with a number of staff having completed their minimum service requirements to be eligible to retire. This has left significant shortfalls within the prison staffing complement and will obviously have an impact on service delivery. We believe that any penal reform measures should be designed with prison staff at the centre of the delivery as part of a multidisciplinary group. The Prison Officers' Association and the Irish Prison Service agreed an annualised hours system in 2005 that is predicated on the principle of the availability of constant recruitment panels to replace retiring prison officers. The moratorium introduced during the crash has created a significant gap in the availability of recruit prison officers, which in turn has caused stagnation in the transfer of many staff to places closer to home. This in turn has caused many stresses outside of the workplace additional to the many stresses attendant on being a prison officer. The new recruit prison officers will receive, as part of their induction, many of the tools they will require to function better in the prison environment. The skills taught will include conflict coaching, resilience training and mindfulness as well as the ability to recognise signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is further planned to roll out these initiatives to all serving staff, who will benefit greatly from this commitment to ongoing professional development.
I again thank the members of the committee for the opportunity to deliver a presentation to them. We will take any questions the committee wishes to put to us.