Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Irish Prison Service
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for accepting this important issue for discussion. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, for being here. With no disrespect to him, I am disappointed the senior Minister could not be available given the issues at stake. Through my work in the Committee of Public Accounts since last January questioning and researching for the questioning of the Irish Prison Service and the Department of Justice and Equality, tens of prison officers and other prison staff from all over the country have come to me unsolicited to share their concerns about what is going on within the Prison Service.
I put on record, very clearly, that the vast majority of prison staff work extremely hard in a very difficult and challenging environment. They deserve our respect and support, including proper remuneration, equipment, terms and conditions and facilities. Despite utterances by the prison officers' union, those facilities should include the availability of hot meals and tuck shop facilities while on duty.
Sadly, a small number of prison staff, at various levels, including senior ranks, are supporting, nurturing and facilitating a culture of omerta, whereby what goes on in the prison and Prison Service stays in the Prison Service - "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours". Through the evidence alleged to me - and to the Government through various protected disclosures, media reports and the Gilheaney report, which it has been sitting on for three months without publishing - it is clear that in some instances there is a parallel investigative, judicial and prosecution system within individual prisons and the Irish Prison Service. I am sure the Minister of State will agree, and certainly the Minister for Justice and Equality who is a solicitor in private life would agree, that we cannot allow this to continue.
I have met tens of prison officers over the past few months and have received reports from them that victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault have been bought off and pressurised to accept money instead of going through due process with An Garda Síochána. It has been alleged to me, and proof provided, that career blocking and spurious transfers have taken place against those who do not play ball and do not row in with the few who pursue and nurture corrupt procedures and systems. On the misappropriation of State funds: it is alleged a governor channelling funds and materials owned by the State to the governor's favourite sporting clubs, organisations and charities. Even - listen to this one Minister - having their homes decked out with prison materials from the prison workshop, put in by staff on duty for the Prison Service at the behest of the governor in question. A store's employee in another prison selling prison uniforms and equipment online when found out was allowed to resign without any recourse to the rigours of the law and without any recovery to the State. Mess committee and tuck shop profits were flagrantly used for sporting trips abroad, including a significant trip to Savannah and New York, costing tens of thousands of euro, to the benefit of just a few at the expense of many.
In terms of illegal surveillance, I have evidence, as does the Government and it is sitting on it, that covert cameras were put in place to monitor prison officers in their workplace who were not implicated in or suspected of any wrongdoing. Covert listening devices were placed in visiting boxes, listening to solicitors and their clients, betraying the age-old law that we must respect this confidentiality. Covert cameras were placed in Portlaoise Hospital to monitor prison staff but, of course, also the poor Joe Soaps who went in there to have their medical issues dealt with. Surveillance of prison staff outside the prison environment: a company, AOC Security Solutions, was paid €28,500 by the State, and that is all we know about, to carry out this work. It has been alleged to me that it was provided with false identification to get into prison and install equipment to spy on hard-working prison staff, and we are paying for it.
I thank the Deputy for raising these very serious issues this evening. I also wish to convey the apologies of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, who cannot be here because he is dealing with the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017 in the Seanad as we speak. However, he will note with great interest what the Deputy has just said.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Inspector of Prisons furnished the Minister with a copy of the report of her investigation, carried out under section 31 of the Prisons Act 2007, into allegations of improper surveillance and other wrongdoing in prisons. The Minister is considering the report in the light of recent advice from the Attorney General with a view to publishing it in accordance with section 31 of the Prisons Act 2007. This will provide the basis for consideration of what further steps may need to be taken. It is his intention to publish that report as soon as possible.
I can advise the Deputy that a number of policies and procedures are available both within the Department of Justice and Equality and the Irish Prison Service in respect of the various issues raised. All matters relating to bullying, harassment and sexual harassment are addressed by the service under its dignity at work policy. Regarding assaults, any criminal act carried out within our prisons, including an assault on a staff member, should be reported to An Garda Síochána for investigation and prosecution. The Irish Prison Service's policies on dignity at work, protected disclosures and the grievance process are accessible to all employees. I can also advise the Deputy that there is an extensive financial control environment in place in the Irish Prison Service. As part of its protected disclosures policy, workers are encouraged to report any concerns about relevant wrongdoing which come to their attention in connection with their employment without fear of penalisation.
In respect of an independent prisons inspectorate, Ireland has signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, OPCAT, but has yet to ratify this instrument. The protocol is preventative in nature and provides for the establishment of national preventive mechanisms which would inspect facilities where a person is held involuntarily. This instrument impacts on a number of sectors and a consultation process with key stakeholders took place during 2018. On foot of these consultations, a draft scheme is being prepared which the Minister intends to circulate to stakeholders for their comments as soon as possible before it is finalised for submission to Government for approval and transmission to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for formal drafting this year.
I take note of what the Deputy said and will ensure that the Minister is made aware of the serious issues raised.
I appreciate there was a pre-prepared statement for the Minister of State to read and I appreciate him being here. I am doing this with the benefit of Dáil privilege because the shutters come down, whether at meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts or the justice committee, in the media or in written and oral parliamentary questions. Everybody knows what is going on but nobody wants to know. I want the Government to publish the Gilheaney report. Because of the mismanagement of this illegal surveillance that went on under the Government's watch, the State is liable to cases being taken by many prison staff who were illegally surveiled, prisoners, solicitors and so on, which could financially expose the State to an awful lot of money. The Government must get on and publish the report. Beyond that, I call specifically on the Minister of State to get the Minister to acknowledge my call and to give a response. We need to establish an independent inspectorate of the Prison Service, at arm's length from the service, with GSOC-style statutory powers. The Inspector of Prisons does not have the power to insist on documentation, for example, as was the case for the report she recently carried out, whereas a GSOC-style entity would.
Staff of the Prison Service are terrified. Of the 20 to 30 I have met, some have made protected disclosures but most have not. Why? Because there is no confidentiality with protected disclosures. It goes around that X made a protected disclosure, X is labelled a rat, is intimidated and ostracised, and the system goes on. We want an independent inspectorate with GSOC-style statutory powers and appropriate resources to give hard-working prison staff the confidence that they can go to a body that is above reproach. They do not have that now because the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 in that sense does not function within the Prison Service.
Second, under the Commission of Investigations Act 2004, I call on the Government immediately to commence an investigation into corruption in our Prison Service among the chosen few - I am at pains to point out the vast majority of staff are very hard-working and want to get on with their lives and do the best they can - on issues to do with misappropriation of State funds, examples of which I have given, sexual harassment, intimidation, career blocking and illegal surveillance. Simply, nothing less will do. We owe it to the Prison Service and and to hard-working prison staff. We faced some of our demons in this country in the past in terms of clerical abuse. We have cleaned up politics a little bit with the Standards in Public Office Commission and we have made a start with An Garda Síochána. It is time that we rooted out the small number who are nurturing a corrupt culture within the Prison Service.
I will bring these matters to the attention of the Minister and assure the Deputy that he will treat them as seriously as he is treating the report he received from the Inspector of Prisons recently. He intends to publish that report as soon as possible.
I am advised that there are policies and processes in place to deal with many of the issues raised by the Deputy. The financial procedures in place in the Irish Prison Service and the Department are comprehensive and deal with the assignment of responsibility, accountability, reporting arrangements, audits, the safeguarding of assets, risk and cost control.
In respect of protected disclosures, the policies and procedures in place are designed to ensure that all such disclosures will be subject to an appropriate investigation by independent external investigators. The Irish Prison Service further commits that any resulting actions arising from investigations will be undertaken as soon as possible in the circumstances. Further, as part of its commitment to protecting workers who make protected disclosures, the Irish Prison Service has signed and complies with the integrity at work pledge to ensure that workers reporting wrongdoing will not face penalisation and that appropriate action will be taken in response to protected disclosures.
If the Deputy has any evidence of a crime being committed or of serious wrongdoing, he should consider bringing this to the attention of the relevant authority and the Garda as soon as possible.