Taoiseach Micheál Martin made “very serious and outlandish” comments about prison officers in the Dáil and the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) is now demanding he rectify the record.
Last year an allegation emerged in the media suggesting a female solicitor was asked to remove her bra on her way into Cloverhill Prison, Dublin, to see a client as it was setting off the metal detectors all visitors must pass through for security screening.
Before the allegations were investigated, Mr Martin told the Dáil the incident was "unacceptable (and) should not have happened". He added any prison officer found responsible should face consequences. After the matter was raised with him by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, Mr Martin also said he was seeking a report on the matter from the Department of Justice.
However, since the allegations emerged publicly and Mr Martin made his comments last July, the matter has been investigated within the Irish Prison Service and the allegations have not been upheld.
At its annual conference in Sligo on Wednesday, the POA said what Mr Martin had told the Dáil amounted to serious allegations being made publicly about a specific group of prison officers in Cloverhill. POA general secretary John Clinton said his association had written to Mr Martin about his remarks, still wanted him to "rectify" what he had said and also wanted to meet him.
His members were “very concerned” about the remarks. He said his members were entitled to due process before public officials, especially the Taoiseach, commented and gave the impression the allegations were already proven.
Mr Clinton added it was clear from the report drawn up for the Department of Justice after investigation that “no misconduct” was proven and he said his colleagues “acted appropriately at all times”.
“We would like the record cleared on this matter,” Mr Clinton said. “We would like the Taoiseach to correct his contributions made to the Dáil, and clearly point out that there was no misconduct whatsoever on behalf of our members working on that evening in Cloverhill Prison. Our members are very upset about it. We’re entitled to due process like anybody else. And we’re very taken aback that something will be commented on before it was fully investigated.”
A reply to the POA’s remarks was awaited from Mr Martin’s office. When asked about the matter in Sligo, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the association’s comments, and whether Mr Martin should revisit his Dáil remarks of last year, “were a matter for the Taoiseach” to consider.
POA president Tony Power told the opening session of his association's conference that overcrowding was emerging again in Irish prisons, with some prisoners in some jails now sleeping on the floor. Overcrowding increased tensions in jail, which resulted in assaults on prisoners and staff, he said.
“Last night we had over 10 per cent of the population of Cloverhill (and prisoners also) sleeping on the floor in the Midlands Prison,” Mr Power said of prisoners sleeping on mattresses placed on the floor. “Again, we’re gone to the stage where we’re now doubling up lifers,” he added of placing two prisoners intended in a cell for one.
“We have problems with overcrowding in Cork and in the Dochas Centre in Dublin. We need about another 600 spaces in the prisons. We have about 4,200, we need about 4,800 or 5,000.”
Ms McEntee said it was “not acceptable” for prisoners to be accommodated sleeping on floors due to overcrowding. She added in the period before she became minister, in 2019, a review of the capacity of the Irish Prison Service had been carried out and some 140 new berths were created in the system arising from that.
Looking ahead to later this year, 96 new spaces would be provided when the Training Unit on the Mountjoy prison campus in north Dublin came back on stream after renovation. A new redevelopment in Limerick Prison, also set to open later this year, would bring 90 men's spaces on stream and 40 for women.