Inside the Irish Prison Service’s new National Violence Reduction Unit

Facilities include double-skin doors, visitor boxes and a multipurpose room

An XBox games console is among the amenities in the multipurpose room pictured this morning in the new National Violence Reduction Unit in the Midlands Prison, Portlaoise Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

An XBox games console is among the amenities in the multipurpose room pictured this morning in the new National Violence Reduction Unit in the Midlands Prison, Portlaoise Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

 

The Irish Prison Service’s new National Violence Reduction Unit will be able to house 10 prisoners, though one bed space will be kept free for a crisis prisoner, such as one who commits a murder in jail.

In the first months of the unit, five prisoners will be taken into the assessment cells. They will be observed for four months during which time a psychological profile of their violent tendencies and personality disorders will be drawn up.

Based on that assessment a care and management plan will be designed for each prisoner.

After the four-month period, they will be moved to one of the more permanent cells in the unit.

Another view of the muttipurpose room showing the Xbox, television and 75kg chairs Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins
Another view of the muttipurpose room showing the Xbox, television and 75kg chairs Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

Most of those cells will have double-skin doors. This involves a grill-style door remaining locked with a cell door open. It means while the prisoners can communicate with staff through the grill door, they can not rush at staff opening their cells. The grill door will only be opened when staff are satisfied it is safe.

There are consultation rooms and “visitor boxes” in the unit. The consultation rooms have a concrete wall down the centre, which effectively divides the room in two.

A large space, with a grill and reinforced glass window for protection, can separate the prisoner from a medical professional or a visitor.

If the prisoners are making good progress, the window and/or grill can be opened to allow a more open and personal interaction with the medical professionals or visitors.

A view from one of the cell’s in the National Violence Reduction Unit in Portlaoise Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins
A view from one of the cell’s in the National Violence Reduction Unit in Portlaoise Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

One room on the unit is designed to “feel like the living room in an apartment”. It has a carpeted – rather than tiled – floor and there are bean bags, a TV and games console.

While there are also chairs, they are special designed to weigh 75kg to make them impossible to lift.

There is also a kitchen unit, with full cooking facilities, though it can be blocked by securing a shutter. If prisoners make very significant progress, and learn how to manage their violence, they will be allowed to play on a PS4 games console in the “living room” or to “cook a pizza or boil an egg” in the kitchen area.

Another view of the main corridor of the new unit Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins
The main corridor of the new unit Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

Tailored protocols

Dr Emma Black, the head of psychology across the entire Irish Prison Service, said the prisoners set for the new unit were so marginalised and “broken” they had never cooked for themselves.

If they were not helped to gain those skills, they would have little chance of remaining crime free on release.

She added four meetings between prison staff and psychologists would be held each day to discuss each prisoner on the unit.

Tailored protocols would be put in place to manage each prisoner depending on their needs and the challenges they faced.

09/11/’18 The visiting box in the new facility in Portlaoise Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins
The visiting box in the new facility in Portlaoise Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

This included each prisoner being unlocked in the morning by two staff, or by up to six staff if the threat they posed required it.

In the UK, some prisoners on similar units were found to stay in their rooms on days when they felt they may be most at risk of attacking staff. They often informed staff of this and asked to be fed through a hatch in the door for fear of attacking staff they encountered; such was their new-found ability to assess and control their mood each day.

Dr Black said the prison officers attached to the new “psychologically informed” unit would each be assigned to one prisoner with a view to building a relationship with them. And it was hoped that relationship could bring about major changes in prisoner behaviour and their long-term chances of reform.