Call for urgent review of restraint methods for violent prisoners

Prison officers concerned they could be at risk of being charged with an assault

The control and restraint practices prison officers use to subdue and overpower violent prisoners have questionable legal standing and the matter needs to be addressed urgently, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) has said.

Officers are concerned that, after a judge ruled the Irish Prison Service’s control and restraint manual had “no value” in his court, they are now at risk of being charged with assault and being convicted and losing their jobs.

Officers said as assaults were increasing in jails, after falling during the pandemic, there was a new urgency to their concerns around their legal position, especially in cases where very robust restraint had to be deployed.

Three years ago, a prison officer was put on trial after being charged with both assaulting a prisoner and making a false statement about the incident. While he was acquitted after trial before a jury, the judge commented that the Irish Prison Service control and restraint manual had no “value”. The POA said it is unacceptable the legal status of the control and restraint regime has still not been addressed by the Department of Justice in the three years since the judge’s remarks.

Gabriel Keaveny, the association's assistant general secretary, said the control and restraint manual set out how, and under what circumstances, prison officers could push, strike and overpower prisoners. Speaking at the POA annual conference in Sligo, he added that after the judge's remarks, officers believed a legal vacuum had emerged and they felt exposed.

‘Not sustainable’

"What is clear is that the control and restraint manual is not set on a legal basis," Mr Keaveny said. "We've said to the Minister that unless this is put on a legal basis then we'll be left with no option but to call An Garda Síochána to deal with violent incidents in prison. It's not sustainable. It would require thousands of Garda hours but we can't be left unprotected."

The POA raised the matter with Minister for Justice Helen McEntee when they met her earlier this month and again at its annual conference.

The Department of Justice declined to comment. In reply to queries, the Irish Prison Service said it was “engaging with the POA on this issue”. It added “prison officers who carry out control and restraint manoeuvres in accordance with organisational policy and training will continue to be indemnified by the State”. It also recognised some prisoners that officers dealt with had addiction, and other issues, and had a “high potential for aggression or violence”.

In 2019, there were 123 assaults by prisoners on staff, dropping to 70 in 2020 as the prisons went into lockdown regimes. That increased to 91 last year. Similarly, the number of “restraint interventions” in 2019 reached 138 – a record high – before falling to 56 in 2020 and rising marginally, to 61, last year.

While figures were not available for the first months of this year, prison officers said the upward trend that began to emerge late last year had significantly accelerated.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times

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