Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 22 March 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Penal Reform: Prison Officers Association
The purpose of this part of our meeting is to have an engagement with the Prison Officers Association on the issue of penal policy and reform. The joint committee has identified this as one of its priority issues in its 2017 work programme. I welcome Mr. John Clinton, general secretary, and Mr. Jim Mitchell, deputy general secretary. On behalf of the committee, I thank them both for their attendance to discuss this important issue. The format of the meeting is that they will be invited to make a brief opening statement which will be followed by a question and answer session.
Before I invite Mr. Clinton to make his opening statement, I must caution the witnesses in respect of privilege. I draw attention to the fact that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Under the salient rulings of the Chair, members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Mr. John Clinton:
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 programs and we will continue to explore the possibility of having these programs 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 and 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.
I will try to be brief. I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee and Mr. Clinton for his thoughtful presentation. We have heard from many people involved in penal reform. There seems to be consistency among everyone, even victims' groups, that we need to get numbers down and make penal reform more effective from the point of view of rehabilitation. There is a general assessment that things are improving. I am interested to hear Mr. Clinton's views on this. The only other issue on which I want his views is solitary confinement. I note the views he has already expressed on it. Is solitary confinement necessary to protect prison officers? Is that what he is saying? What does he think should be done to try to change the situation of people being subjected to solitary confinement in prisons?
Mr. John Clinton:
Solitary confinement, in the context in which Dr. Shalev pointed to it, is not widely used in the Irish prison system. In our view, there appears to be some confusion between a person who has asked to go on protection and a person in solitary confinement. If one checks the numbers with the Prison Service, I am sure they will show that the vast majority of people on restricted regimes are on them because they requested to go on them for their own protection. There will be a small number of prisoners the governor may have decided to put on restricted regimes after they have been risk assessed and found to be a danger to other prisoners or staff or even themselves to the extent that they must be watched constantly. However, the vast majority of people on restricted regimes have gone on them at their own request for protection and, to us, this is very different from the use of solitary confinement as a tool within a prison system. We do not support solitary confinement as a tool within a prison system. This is a very practical approach. Solitary confinement poses resource issues. It is not the best way for a prison officer to deal with a person with whom they work every day of the week. This is the context in which we are talking about it.
Mr. John Clinton:
The numbers have decreased, but if one looks at an annual report of the Prison Service going back to around 2007, what the Prison Service referred to at the time was bed capacity within the prison system. When I worked in Wheatfield Prison, it started off with ten units with 16 cells each, taking the ground floor as an example, so there were 160 on the floor. The minute they started to double up, extra beds were added to the cells and people started to talk about bed capacity. However, our workshops and facilities were all designed on the basis of 320 people being in the place. Within a short time, that number had increased to 400 or whatever the case may have been. Once this happens, in our view, one moves into the issue of overcrowding within the system, yet we still see that the term used is "bed capacity". It is like having a bunk bed for two in a box room in a house and then putting three people into the room. Everyone has a bed but, in the case of a prison, there are no facilities to cater for anyone beyond the original capacity. There has been an improvement over recent years in bringing down the numbers, but a simple political decision or any change could in turn change this overnight, and we would still only have the same resources the following day to deal with whatever would happen.
I thank the witnesses for attending the committee. One of the important issues raised at the previous meeting was the issue of recruitment. I think it was Michael Donnellan who said that we are on the verge of taking people on for the first time since the numbers fell, that we now have the ability to recruit people, that we are in a position to do something a little different and that prison officers have been struggling with lower numbers for a long time. Is that the case? New grades have been introduced recently at a very low level of starting wages and conditions for staff, which would make it very difficult. Is this new recruitment at proper prison officer grade? There was a new minor grade, not really that of a prison officer, and I am not sure this is a good way to go about it, but-----
Mr. John Clinton:
I understand the question. What was introduced during the implementation of the Croke Park agreement was a clerical administration grade. The first intake of staff at this grade were people who transferred from clerical officer positions in the general Civil Service. They came to the Prison Service with roughly an 8% increase in pay but they were to do purely clerical administration duties, not to work on the landings with prisoners. Under the British Taylorist system, people called auxiliary prison officers are recruited and put in one place for one specific purpose and they only work in that one place. We do not do that here. It is not a very positive aspect of a prison service, and we would never encourage it. When we were introducing the annualised hours, a recruit prison officer came in at a lower rate than that of a prison officer but we incorporated into this a third level training course so that when they come in on the lowest points of the pay scale, they move up all the time and can become full prison officers. There is no-----
Mr. John Clinton:
Yes, but the problem with regard to staffing is quite simple. When we agreed annualised hours, the number of hours per year it would take to run the prison service was capped. At the time of the introduction of annualised hours, the number of additional hours required to run the system was set at 960 after every task was analysed.
If 20 people retire in March, 20 other people should come in immediately to fill the backspace because no additional resources come into the system after this. Every hour must be spent within the ordinary wages employees are paid, or the 960 additional hours that match every task that took place in the prison system. This was further redefined as part of the terms of the Croke Park agreement, where every task in the system was revisited to see if it could be done in a more efficient manner. During the Croke Park agreement negotiations, everybody else was told their numbers were to be reduced by 10%. We were told our numbers had to reduce but we still had to do the same amount of work. We had already done this task in 2005 and we had to refine it. Our chairperson at the time of the Croke Park agreement said the methodology we used was probably the best in the public service because we maintained the service.
It links in with Deputy O'Callaghan's point that many of the groups we have had before the committee aspire to the same thing but logistically, because the Prison Service does not have enough staff, many opportunities for meaningful activity in prisons could be removed because people are not able to go here or there or have link-in options. In addressing a recruitment deficit, getting the numbers right and training people will be key to actual changes on the ground. Is the Prison Officers Association confident the numbers being spoken about with regard to recruitment will be sufficient to fill the gap?
I could be completely wrong, but it strikes me when we talk about innovation on the ground that perhaps some of the measures that were progressive have not been able to be delivered. I am thinking of the Dóchas Centre, which was ahead of its time, but because of a lack of staff or resources, particularly training and education, the meaningful training the women do is not great. I am sure this has a knock-on effect on the staff. Do the witnesses notice this contradiction?
A theme has been the number of people in prison with acute psychotic and mental health problems, and it is the members of the Prison Officers Association who must deal with them. How many people are out sick as a result of being at the receiving end of a violent incident in prison? Do the witnesses believe existing supports are sufficient to address this? It strikes me as beyond belief that people in our prison system were refused by the Central Mental Hospital on the basis they were too high risk. The Central Mental Hospital is the professional body dealing with psychotic people, and when it states a person is too high risk for it to deal with, the person is left in a prison setting. That is appalling for that person and the members of the Prison Officers Association, and it is just not on. Can anything be done about this? There needs to be much more of a clamour about this because it is crazy that a waiting list of more than 20 is tolerated.
We raised the issue of the training unit with the director general and I do not know how best to put what we were told. We had many concerns, which probably were not fully answered at the committee meeting we attended, and the question on the gap in service provision was not answered. Do the witnesses have a suggestion on how it might be managed? We are very concerned about this. The training unit was pioneering in its day and perhaps it has diminished a bit. Is there something we should recommend? We were struck by the gap but we did not receive full answers on it.
Mr. Jim Mitchell:
Unfortunately, the projected statistics show there will be 107 incidents of sick leave arising from assault of prison officers in the coming year. For us, this is two assaults per week in the workplace, which is far too many. With regard to supports available to staff, the serious physical assault scheme was introduced two years ago for prison officers. This extends the period of time in which officers who have been victims of serious physical assault receive full pay while out on certified sick leave. They have an additional six months at full pay as opposed to half pay, which was previously the case. We are coming across instances where, due to the sheer violence of the assaults on our members, the sick leave taken goes well beyond this time. We spoke to the Tánaiste before Christmas and part of our discussion centred on the fact prison officers are expected to have full operational capacity to be able to perform their duties across the board at all times. We sought the maintenance of the terms and conditions of employment of people who cannot perform their full operational duties arising from an assault by prisoners in custody. In other words, we sought the retention of their prison officer pay. People are forced out of employment and can no longer retain their jobs in the prison service because of being assaulted. While the supports available for prison staff have been extended, we do not feel they go far enough. We believe it should go further.
The Deputy is absolutely correct with regard to mental health issues. We are prison officers and prisoners who present with mental health issues should not be in prison. We are not trained to deal with such people. They should be in a mental health facility. It is a practical issue for us because it is very hard to communicate with some of these individuals for whatever reason. It has become even worse in recent times because of the growth in distribution of new psychotropic drugs. This has become a massive issue for our colleagues in England. These new drugs are largely undetectable because they are synthetic. They are getting into prisons and are causing individuals severe psychological damage. These people are very unpredictable. Generally, they present with violence. When the drugs began to come into the British prison system they were seen as cheap, but the drug trade is very practical and it is definitely user led. The issue of price will have altered as time has gone on.
We were absolutely clear about the training unit in our submission. The reality for a number of people who come into our custody is their background is not in employment. Many of them come from families with generations of people who did not work. We all probably take for granted the idea of getting up in the morning, going to work and coming home in the evening, having a wage and paying our bills. This basic stuff that every single person and every citizen in the State does must become a learned concept. We believe the training unit provided that. It has been flagged to us as a short-term measure. We believe it is damaging because the people who were in the training unit had been progressing. They were going out to work in the community in the morning and coming back in the evening. They were learning a particular methodology of going to work, which is something we would all take for granted. It would appear these people will have to go into the main prison system. As we outlined in our statement, this will bring attendant pressures because of people looking for them or their families to courier drugs because they are going in and out. A certain amount of pressure can be brought to bear on them.
Mr. John Clinton:
When we were in negotiations on the Haddington Road agreement, we asked that St. Patrick's Institution be utilised as a building for protection prisoners. If they were put in an area on their own, they could have a greater regime. The Prison Service is now stating it is looking at the concept of putting them into a super-enhanced facility. That is the plan in this regard.
On the staffing question, the Deputy is right. Everything is resource based so if we are meant to have 200 prison officers on duty in the building on a given day but we only have 160, then there has to be a hit somewhere in the system. It operates either through diminishing task lines under the health and safety legislation or through a regime management plan. That plan would be designed for safety reasons. However, it does mean that we cannot give the services that we want to give. It is within that context that we raised the Villabona project in Spain. The man who designed that project, Mr. Faustino Zapico García, was brought over here during the lifetime of the last Government, when the Taoiseach was having his meetings about reinvigorating Ireland. We were introduced to him through Ashoka Ireland and the late Dr. Mary Redmond. He showed us figures from the Spanish prison system for his Units of Therapy and Education, UTE, project which is run within the building of a normal prison in Spain. He could run his UTE project with half of the staffing levels of the main prison. He managed to bring in a system where prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff violence went down to practically zero. In the Spanish prison system generally, there was a 75% re-offending rate. The most important element of his system was that the re-offending rate among those prisoners who went through the UTE project was down to 10%. When he gave us those facts and figures, we thought that they were so interesting that we brought him over here to share them with our other colleagues across Europe. He seems to have hit on something that is revolutionary in the prison system.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. I wanted to ask a little more about the Villabona project in Spain to find out how it works. Mr. Clinton said that a prison estate is divided up into units for therapy and education. How does that work?
On a more general level, it must be so hard for prison officers to be working in such a chaotic environment, particularly in the context of addiction. I have seen myself how difficult that can be and the burnout levels must be very high among prison officers. I have worked as a therapist in a treatment centre but there would have only been about 20 clients there and a team of highly skilled therapists. It is quite chaotic and one has to work in a very skilled way to deal with the chaos of addiction and its impact. There is a requirement for a lot of supervision and so forth. It must be very difficult for prison officers to be dealing with that without the skills to deal with the impact of addiction. I am aware that resources are very limited but could modules be introduced into the prison officer's training so that they can deal with the impact of addiction on themselves? It is very easy to get burnt out. Would it be possible to provide more supervision and more support in that area? I understand that resources are tight but I would imagine that if there was some kind of an understanding of how to deal with addiction and mental health problems, it might help. It might help to reduce the level of violence within the prison system. I hope that makes sense.
Mr. John Clinton:
It does make sense, absolutely. Any form of training that improves their skills set would obviously be very beneficial to prison officers and things have changed and improved in that regard; there is no point in me saying otherwise. When I joined the prison service, I was given nine week's basic training and then on the following Saturday, I was straight in and on duty. Nowadays, we have the Higher Certificate in Custodial Care, HCCC, which is a third level course and is far better designed to equip a person with the skills set for the job. That said, the Senator is quite right that we do need more of that type of training. The more training one has, the more one understands the situation around one. It helps the prison officers and, more importantly, it helps the people they are dealing with too. We would encourage anything that the committee could do to help in terms of improving training for prison officers because it is a very challenging environment. Prison officers are working with people who do not want to be in prison and there are huge addiction problems. It is a very challenging job and every tool that we can be provided with to assist us would be more than welcome. We would be hopeful that this committee will make some recommendations in that regard.
On the Villabona project, I did not actually get over to Spain to see it first-hand because there were some internal difficulties between the prison and the Spanish government in terms of allowing us to go in to see it. However, I went to see a project which is based on a similar concept in Grendon prison in the UK. What they do there is to normalise prison to the greatest extent possible. There were two prison officers running the project when I visited. One of them was actually the chairman of the local Prison Officer's Association branch and was very helpful to us. They sit down in a group every day with the prisoners on the project and have very intense counselling sessions. That happens from the time the prisoners get up in the morning until the afternoon, when they have recreation. I actually sat in on one of the sessions myself. I had to get the permission of the prisoners engaged in the project to do so. They allowed me to sit in on it and it was very beneficial. Mr. Eoin Carroll, who was here earlier, was with me on the day. The prisoners speak very openly and honestly. The project is designed around the concepts of non-violence and normalisation. For example, prisoners call the prison officers by their first names, which is not a common occurrence in the Irish prison system. Small things like that make a difference.
In Spain, Mr. Faustino Zapico García, has developed the concept much more. I got a booklet sent over which was in Spanish and I had it translated. I have met Mr. García on a number of occasions and he explains the project very well. Put simply, it is about normalisation and prisoners taking ownership of their own situation. That is combined with the provision of excellent supports, as is the case in Grendon prison. The flaw I saw in the Grendon prison project was that when prisoners finished the course, they were sent back into the normal prison estate, which was nonsensical. Prisoners lived for up to two years in the project environment and came around fully. Some of them would have been big, heavy members of a criminal gang but they were sent back to the criminal gang in the main prison. Peer pressure from the gang then dragged them back into the old way of life straight away. It would have to be designed so that when prisoners come out of a project environment, they are either sent to an open centre or a semi-open centre and not back onto the wings of the regular prison. The concept is excellent and it would be well worth the committee's while to visit Spain to see it in action. It brings in all of the issues that Senator Black referred to, like addiction training and so forth.
I thank the witnesses for coming here to talk to us. My first question relates to Grendon. Mr. Clinton went over there with Mr. Eoin Carroll. I ask him to give us more details on what he saw there and what elements could be incorporated into the Irish system. How could we make it work here? Mr. Carroll said that ideally it would be run as a separate unit. Does Mr. Clinton think we could incorporate it into the current prison system? I invite him to give us more details on what he saw in Grendon.
Mr. John Clinton:
The first point is that it is a separate entity. The people in Grendon prison who are on the project are in a standalone unit. They are not mixing with the general prison population. It would be akin to going into any Irish prison, taking a wing of it and designating it as a unit of therapy and education and determining that only prisoners involved in the unit will be housed on that wing. The plan, the project and everything that goes on in it is specifically confined to that area. The prisoners who are on the project mix with each other but they do not mix with anyone else. There is a lot of peer pressure on each of them when they go onto the project to stay on board with the programme. For example, prisoners who have spent a long time in prison and have learned that it is not a great way to live one's life, impart that knowledge to new prisoners. This is the concept behind the Spanish project. The older prisoners who have been through the system, who want to get out and to change can influence the younger prisoners and teach them about the flaws of going down the road of spending their whole lives going in and out of prison. They teach the younger prisoners how not to do that, after they have gone through the UTE.
We could choose to introduce this concept in any part of the Irish prison system. We could announce that the services of the counselling and therapeutic community are being made available in a certain portion of the prison system. It would be possible to take this approach with a prisoner within a day or two. He would not need to have been in prison for a long time. The people who run the project would assess the prisoner to determine whether it is worth including him in it. Each prisoner selected for the project would be given one, two or three chances, but if it became clear that he was not playing his correct part in it, he would be moved out of it and someone else would be given his place. There is a huge incentive for the prisoner in this approach. It was very worthwhile to sit through the counselling with the prisoners to get their views and hear how they felt about things. For example, the day we were there the prisoners were asked whether their social backgrounds got them into trouble. This was relevant because some of them were going back into those environments. It was interesting to hear one prisoner say openly and honestly that he was in prison because of the acts he had committed. He did not want to hear about his social background because he had moved on from it. The prisoners were open and honest about the crimes they had committed and everything they had done. It was counselling at a very heavy level. People had to take breaks after an hour and a half of these sessions before they could come back to them. It was very worthwhile. I think it would be worth exploring in the Irish prison system.
The issue of finding buildings in which this can be done is not a huge one. The issue is the will to start looking at new types of systems. When we were introducing incentivised regimes in to the Irish prison system, I visited Maghaberry Prison in Northern Ireland, where a similar system was running. When they locked the unit at night time, no prison staff were present and prisoners could go in and out of their cells until a specific time to use toilets, etc. When I looked at that as someone who had worked as a prison officer on the floor, I asked what would happen if a prisoner collapsed in his cell or something like that. The prison officer in charge assured me that someone would ring for an ambulance in the same way that someone would do so if a person collapsed in his or her home. We could understand where he came from when he said that. Local prison managers were fearful about introducing something like that because they felt there would be a blame culture if anything went wrong. They were concerned that there would not be a non-blame culture. When more modern systems of penal reform like the Villabona project or the Grendon approach are being introduced, it is important to bring staff along by reassuring them that there will not be a blame culture if something goes wrong. There is no doubt that mistakes are made when modern processes like this are being introduced. Such problems will be overcome because they have been overcome in other countries where these systems still work.
Deputy Clare Daly mentioned the training unit in Mountjoy Prison. Has an interim solution been reached within the prison? I understand that the staff of the training unit are being moved while the work is going on. Has anything been done to provide an interim solution? Does Mr. Clinton want to elaborate further on that?
Mr. John Clinton:
No. The prisoners will be dispersed. We are not fully sure how it is planned to disperse them. We were told it was hoped to put most of them into a super-enhanced regime at St. Patrick's Institution. That is not currently the situation, however. A means of rehousing the prisoners will be found. The staff will not be moved from Mountjoy Prison if they do not want to be moved. Some staff will look to go elsewhere if there are gaps in the system. Some staff movements will release staff to transfer elsewhere.
Potentially, prisoners who are getting their education, training and rehabilitation within the current unit could be absorbed back into a system they have tried to move away from during their sentences.
That is really a backward step in the context of what we are talking about today. Mr. Clinton mentioned that 77.9% of staff have been physically assaulted, which is a stark statistic. Is that above the international metric? It seems to be a very high figure.
Mr. Jim Mitchell:
While that is a stark statistic, the projection that 107 prison officers will be assaulted by prisoners in 2017 is even worse from our perspective. The State Claims Agency has examined the figures and projected that there will be two assaults per week in the Prison Service as a workplace. It is as if everyone working in this building knew there was a good chance that they or one of their colleagues would be assaulted. The stark reality is that it happens twice a week. The other side of the coin is that our people deliver a service afterwards. People have to be incentivised to view their jobs in a good, positive and productive manner. We have looked at the question of penal reform from a positive perspective because it is a practical issue for us. Some conflicting issues, such as a lack of staff, have been mentioned. The significant problems with overcrowding that persisted in previous years have been alleviated for the time being. However, something like a change in bail legislation could easily overturn that. The tenuous and precarious nature of the job is a real issue for every prison officer who goes to work every day. The Prison Service statistics we have quoted bear that out. The validity of international comparisons hinges on the kinds of regimes we look at. An international comparison with Spain, for example, might not look at the Villabona project to which Mr. Clinton referred. While the job we do is extraordinary, for want of a better word, it is done by people who view it as a job and who go to work because they have mortgages to pay and families at home. Their ability to do the job can be destroyed permanently, as I said earlier.
Mr. John Clinton:
While I have seen some positive things in the British system, I would have a negative view of most of the stuff I have seen over there. An undercover journalist recently went into Northumberland prison to make a Panorama documentary that showed the stark reality of how bad a prison can get. I would not like to work in the place, never mind being a prisoner there. The documentary focused on the developing issue of the use of new psychoactive substances in the prison environment. It showed a prison officer collapsing as a result of inhaling the smoke in the air in the prison. He had to be taken out in an ambulance. Such things are taking off now, unfortunately, and it will be difficult to deal with them in our system.
I thank Mr. Clinton and Mr. Mitchell for their presentation. I would like to raise a few points. I wonder how much contact the association has with the Minister and the Department of Justice and Equality. Does it deal mainly with the Irish Prison Service? There is broad agreement that things could be much better for prisoners, prison officers and staff. It is agreed that things need to change. How can we make change a reality? Do the witnesses feel the prisons are understaffed? Are prison officers under-resourced to do the job they would like to do? How would Mr. Clinton and Mr. Mitchell regard the level of staff morale at present? I agree with Deputy O'Callaghan that people with mental health issues should not be in prison. We have been led to understand that up to 70% of the prison population have mental health challenges in one area or another. It seems that judges are going to keep sending people to prison irrespective of their problems.
People with mental health issues are ending up in prison. The judge does not have anywhere else to put them and the State is not providing facilities and means to deal with these people in a different way so we are using prison to deal with them. The prison officers are not being trained to deal with them as it is not their area. This all seems a bit mad. I know a small unit is being built in the midlands, which is a good idea but it is clearly a token gesture. It is not near enough to meeting the challenges of the problem. What can be done in the area?
A separate issue is the management of prisons, which to the best of my knowledge is still based in Longford. Would it make more sense to have it in Dublin? The witnesses have stated the majority of people who are in solitary confinement are there by their own request. The problem is that gang culture is alive and well. Challenging that must be very difficult. Does the delegation agree it needs to be challenged? Rather than being happy with saying that a prisoner is in solitary confinement because he wants to be because of another problem, surely we must deal with that other problem. Is that an impossible task? Does it require a new apparatus? It probably needs more resources and perhaps a different structure within the prison itself. What are the thoughts of the witnesses? Is it possible to address the major problem with gangs?
Mr. John Clinton:
I will start with the first issue. The staffing issue is very obvious and if one does not have the staff, there is a problem. As I stated, we designed an annualised hours package so we would know how many hours we had within the system and what we had to work with. It was designed with the belief that we would have classes of recruits always in training to match retirements. That is manpower planning. If they know 30 people can retire in October this year, we should have 30 people in training, ready to walk out and readily replace them. There are obvious issues around that and we only have one training centre. The maximum we could probably get is a number amounting to two classes at a time. There are difficulties all the time in that regard but we should have a system in place with recruits always in training, with proper manpower planning for the amount of people who can go out. This can be checked fairly well as they know from when a person joins the day he or she can leave. In the early 1970s there was much recruitment, as there was in the early 1990s, as it was matched to the opening of prisons etc. One can reasonably predict manpower planning in that regard. It is not rocket science and it should be done all the time. I hope that addresses the staffing element of the question. We are not happy with the current position but it is what it is because we only have one training college. The course takes a certain amount of time before a prison officer emerges. We should always have ongoing recruitment to match retirements. In that way we will keep a far better flow of staff and resources on the ground. Everything is resource-based and there is no doubt about that.
The Deputy asked about people in restricted regimes because they ask to be there and whether that can be addressed. It can be addressed. There is intelligence on prisoners within the system to know who are the gang people. They know who they are when they are arrested in the outside community and when they are put into prison. In the British system they have eight units where they keep people in closed supervision. One is in Woodhill and they are all category A prisoners. We do not use that type of classification in the Irish prisons but they are the types who are gang leaders who cause all the problems. It is that type of prisoner. Rather than having the person on the other end of the scale - who is forced and pressurised all the time - in the restricted regime, we should turn it the other way around and put those who cause the problems under restricted regimes and closed supervision. I am not talking about solitary confinement but rather having those types of people in isolation units where they cannot put pressure on the more vulnerable people within our system. The prison system should be there to help the person who wants to be helped and not the other way around. The person with power in a gang should not control a prison. The vulnerable person should be at the centre of our thoughts in the prison system all the time.
Mr. John Clinton:
We constantly express our concerns and the main opportunity we get to do so is at the annual delegate conference, believe it or not, as the Minister of the day comes to it. We get the chance to put all the issues out there and we get media coverage in getting those issues into the public domain. It offers an excellent opportunity in that regard. We get to see the Minister approximately once per year, when we request it. In the main, since the introduction of a director general to the Prison Service, industrial relations issues or other matters are directed to the director general and his or her officials. That goes back to approximately the year 2000.
There was a point about the large percentage of people with mental health challenges who end up in prisons. Do the witnesses have any ideas on how we can challenge that? Surely we cannot continue behaving in this manner?
Mr. John Clinton:
No, and it is a major issue. There are different levels of problems with mental health. People can have issues that can be treated by our nursing staff and people within our prisons but there are people at the other end of the scale who have so many difficulties they need to be in a different type of setting than what we are equipped to deal with.
I have a final set of questions. In Mr. Clinton's opening address he indicated that last Thursday, the day before St. Patrick's Day, there were 3,793 people in custody. Within that figure, 235 were in open centres. Has the witness any idea of the number of the remaining prisoners who could be in open centres? Has any such analysis been done? I presume an analysis has been done in the first instance or there would not be 235 people in open centres. Could there be another 235 put in these settings or what is the issue? Do we not have sufficient capacity within open centre settings? Will Mr. Clinton elaborate a little on that? On a number of levels and even speaking earlier with the Jesuit centre's representative, it seems to be a more affordable means of addressing the denial of one's liberty. I am anxious to know what further information can be given in that regard.
There is the issue of establishing drug-free areas within prison settings. I take from Mr. Clinton's statement that it is not in situnow but it is an aspiration, hope and ambition. He has indicated it has the support of all stakeholders but where is the problem if I am right in my understanding they are not in situ? If all stakeholders are supportive, what further steps might be necessary to see the establishment of drug-free areas within prison settings?
Mr. John Clinton:
I will start with the first question. We only have two open centres, which are Shelton Abbey and Loughan House. One could be the most compliant prisoner under the sun but may not want to be in Loughan House if he or she lives in Dublin because of family visit or various other issues. The last time we spoke before the committee there was a recommendation to use more open centres. This should be tied into the issue of sentence management. There must be more than 235 prisoners coming to the end of their sentences.
Mr. John Clinton:
Having more people in open centres is feasible and there is no doubt about that. It must be tied into the sentence management plan. We have just taken the semi-open centre out of the system.
Are we going to replace it with open centres? The committee did a lot of work on this issue and drew up conclusions as to why we should have them. We believe we should have them and that we should use the ones we have. They can be developed much more cheaply than closed prisons and the problem is not insurmountable. We have drug-free units in ordinary prisons, but we could have more of them and a lot of people would buy into them. If we were to get a prisoner out of the main area to the drug-free unit, it would get him or her out of an environment in which he or she is pressurised to bring in stuff, which gets him or her involved in the drug culture within the system.
Mr. John Clinton:
There may be a unit in Wheatfield Prison that is drug free. As we had them in St. Patrick's Institution many years ago, it is not a new initiative. Dr. Vanessa Fowler, the European expert in this area, visited St. Patrick's Institution and, despite all the criticism it had received during the years, she found it to be one of the best she had ever seen, describing it as a model of best practice. Anyone in Europe could have come to St. Patrick's Institution and seen how to do it properly; therefore, the knowledge and skill sets are available within the system. We should do a lot more of this.
Mr. John Clinton:
To a prison officer on the ground, it is insignificant where the headquarters are. It is of no relevance to me while I am working with prisoners. Decentralisation was a political decision and we were certainly not consulted on it. The main prisons are located in Dublin, but the decision to move was political. I was at a partnership meeting of all the unions in the Irish Prison Service when decentralisation was announced and nobody had known anything about it before that day.
Staff morale is low. We could do an awful lot in the Irish Prison Service to improve things and doing it would automatically improve staff morale.
Mr. Jim Mitchell:
There is frustration as much as anything else. People join the Irish Prison Service for many reasons. Security of tenure does not come into the reckoning because there are many other jobs. It is always challenging and the people who join are particularly well motivated. In time, if they do not have enough resources and are being constantly stretched, it will impinge on morale. It affects some places more than others. The more difficult and challenging the job the lower morale will be because officers did not join the service for that reason - they joined to do something positive. When staff are under-resourced and under pressure, morale becomes an issue.
Please do. On behalf of the committee, I thank Mr. Clinton and Mr. Mitchell for their presentation and engagement with the committee for the past hour. It has been a very informative meeting which will assist the committee in its consideration of the broader issue. We will reflect on the ideas raised in our report which we will copy to the delegates once it has been published.