Presidential Address to the Annual Delegate Conference of the Prison Officers Association, Kilkenny, 19th April 2018
On behalf of the National Executive Council it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to this year’s Annual Conference of the Prison Officers’ Association. I would like to extend a warm welcome to the Mayor of Kilkenny City Mr Michel Doyle, Minister Charlie Flanagan on this his first Conference with us and members of the Irish Prison Service management. You are all welcome.
I would like to extend a particularly warm welcome to our fellow trade unionists, the national media, our invited guests and especially our delegates from around the country, who are present here today.
To our members who were victims of serious assaults or serious threats to their safety or involved in other traumatic incidents while carrying out their duties on behalf of the state over the past year, I extend to you the best wishes of all present here today.
Delegates, year on year since I took up this role – and indeed well before my time – the President of our Union has stood here at this point in proceedings and quoted from statistical analysis of one type or another. When these statistics, especially on assaults, dip from the ‘outrageous’ to the simply ‘unbelievable’ the Minister of the day will normally tell us ‘what great progress is being made’ and that it ‘represents a significant reduction of instances of violence upon the dedicated working prison officers of the service’. And so it goes on for another year and sometimes another Minister, while individual prison officers and their families are trying to cope with all that has occurred.
This year in the hope of my successor being able to stand here and say ‘we are glad to report an improvement in our prisons in respect of violence against our members’ I am going to tell it the way that Prison Officers hear it, not by statistic, but by incident and description. I won’t give all of them because I’m sure you all have somewhere to be tomorrow.
June three PSEC officers attacked on escort;
July Cloverhill 2 staff injured one recruit ingested blood in the attack (welcome to the Prison Service);
August Cork Officer attacked and hospitalized with a head injury;
September Cork Prison Officers’ Car burnt out in front of their home;
October Mountjoy 2 officers attacked one bitten;
November Midlands officer attacked head injury sustained;
December Mountjoy female officer grabbed from behind by the hair and smacked off the wall also Midlands sexual assault on a female officer/urine thrown over staff/ officer attacked with an iron bar(Happy Christmas);
January Mountjoy Prisoner spat into officers face
February Mountjoy 7 staff assaulted in 3 different incidents
March Blood thrown into officers eyes and mouth in Mountjoy.
These are a variety of what it involves to be a prison officer. It also shows that this is not a seasonal occurrence indeed during the season of goodwill there were 22 assaults on staff in Mountjoy and the Midlands alone. The response to this will vary from ‘you knew what you were signing up for’ to ‘the prisoners were victims of circumstance’.
The reality is that while we knew what we were signing up for part of the deal was that we would be protected as much as possible within our place of work.
In recent years practical solutions that form part and parcel of prison work in other jurisdictions such as conflict resolution dogs have been withdrawn.
The Irish Prison Service has unilaterally rejected batons being part of the uniform.
One of the practical methods of punishment which forms part of the prison rules was the withdrawal of remission which was unilaterally removed by the employer in the latest round of prisoner concessions to satisfy the whim of whoever the latest ‘forward thinking’ group that never had to walk a prison landing but thought long and impressive thoughts about how to ‘hug’ away the problems of this world.
Unfortunately we don’t live in this ’fluffy bunny’ world and the only thing that we request is that the statutory protections that we require to do our job remain in place and practical measures that work in other jurisdictions are introduced for the benefit of all.
In a recent fact finding trip to Copenhagen a delegation from Mountjoy saw Danish Prison Officers carrying batons, cuffs and pepper spray as part of their uniform. In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, batons are standard issue for prison officers, the use of patrol dogs is widespread in various prison services – so why are we failing to protect prison officers in this jurisdiction?
For all Prison officers their absolute belief is that the rule of law in prisons has disappeared and the era of appeasement for the offender is now fully embedded. When I joined the job over thirty years ago, and many facets of the job have improved since then, the assault of a prison officer was a rarity and something that reverberated around every prison in the country and not a statistical anomaly to be ‘interpreted’.
Minister, you are at the wheel now and as you have told us previously. You are well aware of the problems of Prison Officers so the weight of expectation rests heavily on you with the largest prison in state and the highest security prison in Europe in your constituency. You must deliver on these issues.
I am now calling on you Minister to announce an independent analysis of assaults on our members while at work. This analysis should lead to recommendations on how our members can experience a safe place of work. Surely this is not too much to ask as you must support and restore our workplace to us.
When we spoke about ‘gangs’ before we were referring to the loose alliances that often broke apart and showed no loyalty, for want of a better word, to each other and, with the exception of family based groups. These various entities either broke apart or reformed under a different ally. Hence the adage ‘no loyalty among thieves’.
However what we have now operating, within Mountjoy, Wheatfield and the Midlands, are gangs that have international profile and significant funds to run their operations like a business. They have a hierarchy within the prison estate and have a number of ‘contractors’ that they hire ‘work ‘out to. In total there are nearly 30 factions within Mountjoy that cannot mix for a variety of reasons. Because of this number of groups operating the logistical difficulties alone of keeping one group from another are staggering. This has resulted in officers getting injured while keeping groups apart, where the attackers know that they will be amply rewarded or avoid punishment by carrying out an attack.
The establishment of the Unit to deal with violent and disruptive prisoners in the Midlands prison does not adequately address the difficulties that these gangs create; however the state has faced a similar situation since the 1970’s.
Minister we have spent a decade hearing about limited resources but this is a solution that already exists. While we welcome the small number already transferred to Portlaoise you must put ALL of these individuals into the only prison in the state equipped to deal with them and take charge of these gangs in the prisons with the appropriate supports in the appropriate environment. These gangs must be controlled or we lose control of our prisons
Minister while we welcome the amalgamation of the rent allowance into pay and have supported the pay restoration agenda of the most recent pay talks, a look at the news will show queues of people waiting for days outside show houses and one could be forgiven for thinking we were back in 2007 all over again.
At the risk of appearing pessimistic and conjuring up memories of Bertie threatening suicide we remember the attack on our pay that was a consequence of those queues ten years ago. We also hear of the possibility of the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement going beyond three budgets because of the uncertainty of Brexit. We see the possibility of American multinationals downsizing or returning home because of U.S. domestic policy decisions.
When the economy collapsed Prison Officers along with every other Civil Servant were scapegoated and demonized publicly, our terms and conditions were eroded while sanctimonious commentators portrayed us as the real problem at the heart of the collapse. Meanwhile back in the prisons we still functioned with fewer officers and less money but more violence, more drugs and more gangs.
Prison Officers are still bearing the burden of the moratorium and it is only the slow and gradual restoration of recruitment and pay that is providing relief to a workforce that has endured much in the last decade.
Minister it is totally unacceptable that the pensions of some of our present and future grades are being attacked by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
This attack on pension provision applies specifically to some of our nursing grades and new entrants to the trade’s section of the service.
We ask you here today to address this matter as we see this as a justice issue, which must be addressed.
Let me assure the members affected that the POA will do all in all in our power to rectify this wrong. These are all operational grades and should be entitled to the same conditions as those they serve alongside.
All of these issues, Minister, are genuine considerations and are part of your ‘heavy crown’ of government but let us make one thing abundantly clear if there is another collapse our pay is not on the table.
Lest we forget
Delegates it is with a sense of disappointment that I have to address the growing difficulty of overcrowding. Those of you that are hardy annuals will note that this has not been on the agenda for years. The reason being that due to a drop in committal rates and an increase in cell spaces most institutions fell below the recommended capacity figure of the Inspector of Prisons.
Sadly staff are again working in overcrowded Prisons. The Prison Population has again reached a level where various Prisons are doubling, trebling and quadrupling cells. Prisoners are again being forced to sleep on mattresses on cell floors.
However now prisoners are being moved from floor to floor and transferring from one prison to another without any centralized flowplan, which is sadly reminiscent of the 90’s.
Mattresses are being put on floors in an all too familiar reminder of the nightmare scenarios of holding cells being packed to capacity.
Meanwhile the Irish Prison Service are refusing to fill vacant bed spaces in open Centres while the Training Unit still remains closed.
The Training Unit provided prisoners the opportunity to learn about going to work, an act many of us take for granted but for many of those who were inmates in the Training Unit it did not come naturally and became a learned function and a step towards a normal living environment.
Minister, we are asking that you address this pending cycle of overcrowding by ensuring full capacity in our open centres and reopen the Training Unit to proactively deal with the overcrowding issue.
Amid much fanfare the long awaited recruitment drive has commenced. Don’t get me wrong we absolutely support the recruitment of more officers. After nearly a decade of retirements all our prisons are severely understaffed with all the attendant difficulties that this brings. We were not alone.
The rest of the Civil Service suffered similarly and were also stretched. The major difference was that the impact was felt in the wider community with the processing of applications etc. It is not quite so simple for prison staff. Our risk prone work cannot just linger in the IN box with delays in processing as the only outcome.
The people that are the hub of our labour are not as patient or understanding as society in general – and with aforementioned lack of discipline they don’t feel that they have to be. It changes the nature of our work to the extent that procedures, such as diminishing task lines, which were an agreed Health and Safety tool to be used on very odd occasions are now employed on a daily basis.
The managements Regime Management Plan, which was designed to maximize the safety of staff is largely ignored by its own managers and the policy of ‘sure it will be ok’ prevails. We have revisited this time and time again and senior management can’t seem to get their own Governors to comply with their directions.
Furthermore when the annualized hours agreement was reached with the Government of the day the principal guiding factor in that agreement was that in order for the annualized hours system to work that there had to be continuous recruit availability in order to keep pace with retirements.
So Minister just 3 things;
• firstly get your managers to comply with arrangements that ensure the safety of their own staff,
• secondly prioritize the security clearance function and get applicants cleared for work in our prisons rather than the current snails pace that inhibits panels being put in place in a timely fashion and
• thirdly if you are still at the helm when the next economic collapse happens ensure that those panels are in place in order to maximize the safety of prison officers.
It is no surprise to anyone that smoking in the workplace became illegal since 2004. It is also no stretch of the imagination to understand that the application of this law into prisons would be difficult and present with more issues than any other workplace due to the nature of our job and the high usage of cigarettes amongst prisoners.
We engaged with the Prison Service to ensure transition to full compliance while being aware of the possible backlash with even more injuries to our members.
Engagement escalated in the last 12 months where the Midlands introduced a pilot scheme that was to roll out to all locations in some manner but this did not happen. It didn’t happen for any other reason than the local managers whose job it was to implement this policy simply didn’t do it.
Our NEC endorsed the escalating programme of compliance as the best way of creating a smoke free workplace in order that we can have the same health and safety protection as any other worker in this state but still no movement.
Indeed it was only when a HSA team went to the West Dublin Campus and threatened a compliance order on the Governor there that it was decided to do something about it. But what happened? In typical fashion Officers were targeted-not prisoners.
So we find that only when there is a threat of a legal writ or personal embarrassment will anything happen to enhance Prison Officers’ working environment and even then they find themselves as the target of implementation rather than prisoners. Minister if you want a view on how the Prison Service works this is a microcosm of it. We ask that prison officers be considered first and not last, as is currently the case, when deciding policy and not the ones to ultimately bear the brunt of management’s bad decisions or avoided decisions on various policies.
Code of Discipline
Minister, in 2009 we submitted a claim at Departmental Council for the establishment of a new Code of Discipline. The reason? No officer had been found not to be guilty of the charge leveled against him or her since 1996! It was described to us by Senior Counsel as an appalling document and no wonder.
Can you imagine if the courts system worked like that? We would need a prison the size of Offaly to accommodate all those being convicted. Over the intervening years we have had offerings that were copy and paste from similar uniform occupations from different jurisdictions. In some cases the font or the grades hadn’t even been changed such was the lack of interest in this topic.
It was for this reason that when the Civil Service Code was being changed we sought that we should be included so as we would be on a level playing field with all other Civil Servants given that we are supposed to evaluated according to the same matrices like PMDS, Circulars, policies etc.
There now appears to be an issue regarding our inclusion with the other public servants under this umbrella.
Minister whatever the difficulty is could you address it as a matter of urgency. After spending 22 years ‘of being found guilty’ is nearly as long as Nelson Mandela spent looking for a bit of fair play – and a bit like him I also had to go to prison before becoming President.
Finally, a word on the issue of mental health and the importance of using the appropriate supports that are available in our workplace. In recent years there has been a growing awareness of the importance of mental health in society in general and our job is no different.
Unfortunately in the past we have had colleagues that have suffered from depression and in some extreme cases they have taken their own lives.
While we pride ourselves on having a healthy spirit of camaraderie in our job, given the nature of our job it is an article of faith that when you are on the landings that no weakness shows and the job gets done regardless of what’s going on in your head. This is a failsafe mechanism that every officer knows. It makes sure that when you are confronted with violence or a drug overdose or a prisoner’s attempted/successful suicide or any number of the worst parts of human nature that form part of your day that you deal with it and move on.
As we know ourselves “ we can laugh at everything but not with everyone” but in the past many of our colleagues didn’t move on and the laughter was hollow and they found solace at the bottom of a bottle and which led to a whole world of other problems. Some were lucky and had spouses or partners or friends that supported them and got through it. Some weren’t so lucky.
It’s for this reason I want to remind everyone of two things; Inspire and CISM. Inspire is a facility available to all Prison Officers that have a 24/7 helpline and counseling service that all of us can avail of. CISM is the acronym for Critical Incident Stress Management, which is a peer driven programme to support Officers primarily following traumatic incidents and enables them to talk it through with a fellow officer rather than present in front of someone that has no concept of what may be going on in a prison officer’s head. Unfortunately recently in Mountjoy we found out that following a further spate of assaults and one much publicized suicide the CISM facility was offered to nobody!.
The Union, the management and the Employee Assistance Service support both of these programmes. These are facilities that are available to us and while there is a certain amount of uptake however there is still the perception of a taboo around such subjects.
A look at our injury on duty policy shows that while there have been some advances in recent years in relation to Physical assault there is only the slimmest of provisions for psychological trauma and the stigma of ‘ not handling’ a situation well still prevails. There is a perception that someone is either gamming on or even if it’s true we don’t want to talk about it because it’s not something that we do.
Minister, this is something that all parties must agree on.
Firstly that more cognizance is given to mental health of serving prison staff which should be reflected in the relevant work circulars particularly in relation to the Occupational Injury and Disease arrangements.
Secondly we should all support these programmes if for nothing else it’s one thing that we can all agree on.
In conclusion on this my final speech as President of this union I want to reflect on a career in the Prison Service and for most of that time as a representative of this Union.
This union has achieved so much in the years that it has been in existence. These achievements weren’t without struggle and pain but ultimately were for the improvement of Prison Officers lives.
Aside from many successful claims pursued on behalf of Members probably the most memorable was the negotiation and implementation of the Annualized Hours agreement. When I joined the job the obsession with overtime was rife. Officers would gladly tell all and sundry how many hours that they had worked in a row. Compels to attend work were the order of the day. It was perceived that if you did not spend every hour in existence in the prison then you were somehow missing out. Home lives were nonexistent and the one holiday of the year was over all too quick and everyone was back in jail and thinking they were winning.
Michael McDowell (Gone but not forgotten) took up the reins and decided that he was going to eliminate overtime and the Prison Officers’ Association, not through any sense of concern for our situation but for political expediency. So this union faced down the barrel of a gun where the Government of the day had a plan of action- not particularly well thought out- but a plan nonetheless.
At the same time many of the membership had an absolute conviction to retain the overtime culture regardless of consequence. In the eyes of the watching world conflict was inevitable, with the sabre rattling on both sides reaching fever pitch it was then I believe that this union achieved its finest hour.
We saw that to solve a problem you have to use different thinking than what caused it in the first place, to protect our future we used the machinery of the state, and we explained to our members the benefits of this approach and then explained again and again and again. When proposals came and went and long hours in the LRC went similarly we stuck to our guns and provided a workable different solution for all stakeholders. And then explained again and again and again.
And we found in this melee the unity of purpose that is the cornerstone of this union. We found that it’s not enough to have a solution that works you have to believe in it enough to bring everyone- or at least a majority- with you and that can only be done by understanding as best you can where everyone is coming from, whether the solution is achievable and then not deviating from that course.
This was to provide for us the blueprint for every engagement thereafter, particularly when the economy collapsed. Through no fault of our own again we found ourselves at the centre of another threat to our existence, another threat to our livelihood, which left us searching for another solution.
Again like the previous version it was not the solution for everyone and while we suffered much hardship I believe and I am satisfied we coped better than all other civil and public servants during this time. Again like before it was achieved through hard work, constant engagement and finding workable solutions.
These are probably the most public examples of our achievements but most of our best work, I believe, is done in private helping members on an individual basis and unseen by all but those in trouble. Whether it’s a code of discipline, bullying and harassment, sick leave, promotions or transfers we are the most accessible union in this country.
Also today I want to remember those colleagues who showed so much courage and solidarity back in 1988, some 30 years ago, when they went on a national strike to highlight a totally unjust roster system which had been foisted on our members. We must be so grateful to these colleagues who set the scene for the implementation of a much more just and manageable workplace, which exists today. Their efforts and courage will not be forgotten.
And of course colleagues we have worked tirelessly since to maintain very good attendance systems for our membership.
The one thing that I can take from my time is that when times were hard and in spite of different opinions, loudly made, our unity saw us through. The ability to recognize that we as representatives do a job few would do and very few would continue doing is the glue that has held us together.
As I leave I wish my successor the very best and I want to give him or her this bit of advice.
Don’t do the popular thing; Do the right thing.
I ask all members to trust their local representatives
I ask all to support your National Officers
And never forget that you are representing people who do the hardest job in this state.