Gang feuds and staff shortages blamed for prison assaults

Serious attacks on prison officers have doubled at Mountjoy Prison and Limerick jail

 A review of discipline within the prison system began in March this year, almost a year after Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan announced it would. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

A review of discipline within the prison system began in March this year, almost a year after Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan announced it would. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Prison officers have blamed the rising number of feuding gang inmates, the prevalence of crack cocaine and a lack of staff for a sharp increase in violent assaults on staff in some of the State’s main jails in recent years.

Between 2016 and last year, serious attacks on prison officers doubled at Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison, from 12 to 24, and at Limerick jail, from four to eight, and increased at the Midlands Prison from seven to 13.

In Cork, assaults on staff tripled from five to 15, while Castlerea saw an increase from one a year to 12 over the same period.

There has, however, been a decline in violence against staff at Cloverhill in Dublin, the Dóchas women’s prison, and Portlaoise and Wheatfield prisons.

Across all jails, recorded assaults on officers are up from 98 to 110 – a 12 per cent rise – over the past three years.

The Irish Prison Service (IPS) has admitted the trend is a “major concern”.

Jim Mitchell, deputy general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), said an unfortunate side-effect of recent Garda successes in putting members of the warring Kinahan and Hutch gangs behind bars was the “asserting of their authority inside”.

“They don’t have this road-to-Damascus conversion once they come through the prison gate,” he said. “They are exactly the same dangerous individual that they were on the outside. But now they are in a more compressed area, with like-minded individuals.”

Allegiances

Smaller factions already operating within the prison system are being forced to declare allegiances with the gangs, he said, meaning they were “duty-bound” to be seen to take a side when violence broke out.

Mr Mitchell said the growth of crack cocaine use among inmates, decreasing staffing numbers and low sentences in courts for attacks on staff (“tough sentences are as rare as hens’ teeth”) are all contributing to the increase.

The POA leader said he would also like to see the reintroduction of attack dogs and the “universal” roll-out of body cameras for all staff, which can record footage to be used during prosecutions in court.

Specially selected staff at the recently opened National Violence Reduction Unit in the Midlands Prison already wear body cameras, and are permitted to carry batons on duty.

Mr Mitchell said discipline had broken down across the prison system.

It was a thing that female staff were never, ever assaulted. That is not the case anymore

“Compared to what it was before, discipline has disappeared,” he said. “Staff giving even basic orders, like [for inmates] to return to their cell, are basically ignored. There doesn’t seem to be any great attempt to impose discipline and it is only the most serious incidents that warrant high-level disciplinary action.”

Mr Mitchell cited attacks on female staff as an example, recalling two recent cases where one was grabbed around the neck while another was sexually assaulted. “It was a thing that female staff were never, ever assaulted,” he said. “It was something that just wasn’t done. That is not the case anymore.”

A review of discipline within the prison system – as recommended in 2016 by the State Claims Agency in a report into assaults on prison staff – began in March this year, almost a year after Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan announced it would.

Concluded

The IPS said the review concluded in recent weeks and “will now be the subject of external stakeholder discussion and, once completed, the recommendations will be implemented”.

Injuries range from minor cuts and bruising to more serious cases where officers require hospitalisation

“It is an unfortunate feature of prisons that from time to time incidents of violence will occur for a variety of reasons including heightened tensions, feuds from the outside, prison population and so on,” a spokesman said.

Injuries range from minor cuts and bruising to more serious cases where officers require hospitalisation, the spokesman added.

The IPS says the opening of the National Violence Reduction Unit last November marks a “significant change” in how it deals with the highest-risk prisoners. It declined to say when the remainder of the recommendations from the SCA report would be implemented.

Fíona Ní Chinnéide, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said a key recommendation was for the removal of inmates with serious mental health issues from prisons. “But this has not happened,” she said.

“Transfer of prisoners to suitable psychiatric facilities is beyond the control of the prison service, and demands a whole-of-Government response, including close co-operation between health and justice.

“An immediate action that could be taken is to ring-fence sufficient spaces for the prison service in the new forensic mental health facilities at Portrane.”