High pay for hard time


Prison officers are locked in battle with the Minister for Justice over plans to reduce overtime pay, writes Conor Lally

There aren't too many jobs like it. There are no third-level educational qualifications required to secure a position as a prison officer and training takes just two months. After that, entrants find themselves in well-paid, pensionable public sector employment with a basic salary of up to €34,000 including overtime, on a par with some professionals with a university education.

And because most prison officers work 12-hour shifts, or just under seven days every fortnight, it means they are well positioned to earn the equivalent of their basic salary in overtime. Some are earning overtime up to €90,000, around four times the average industrial wage.

Annual expenditure on the State's 16 prisons topped €331 million last year. Of that, €204 million went on pay, including €59.3 million on overtime. Since taking office last year, the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, has made it clear time and again that he needs to lower overall prison expenditure. He sees reducing overtime as the best way of doing that.

For almost six months officials from his department have been negotiating with the Prison Officer's Association and the Irish Prison Service. The Government and the prison service wants the officers to accept an offer of €10,300 extra in return for working up to 360 hours overtime per year. They were also offered a one-off payment of €12,250 payable over three years.

The officers have rejected that deal. The results of a ballot, made public on Wednesday, revealed that more than 99 per cent of officers voted no.

McDowell immediately said he would act to reduce overtime if no agreement is reached by November 9th. The closure of four prisons - Shelton Abbey, Loughan House, Spike Island and the Curragh - is widely predicted. Prisoners at those facilities will be transferred to other jails. Prison officers will also be transferred, greatly reducing the need for overtime. Job done for McDowell.

So are prison officers paid too much? Moreover, why is the prison service structured in such a way that requires them to work so much overtime?

"You have to understand," says one officer, "overtime is not a perk of the job as everybody thinks it is. Most of the time you are forced to do it. You can certainly put yourself forward for pretty much all the overtime you want and earn a good few quid, but a lot of guys who do that never see the outside of the prison, most fellas are not interested in that.

"Most of us want the prison service to hire more officers so everyone else won't have to do as much overtime. That would cut the overtime bill straight away. But they won't do that because they'll have to pay them things like pension entitlements and that's more expensive in the long term.

"People also forget that nearly half of anything we earn in overtime goes back to the Government in taxes," the officer adds.

Within the prison service, stories abound of officers working for two and three months with just one or two rest days. Some have been required to work so late into the night and be in again so early the next day that sleeping over in the workplace is not uncommon.

"I wouldn't agree that we should not get paid as much as professionals," says another officer. "We work very long and anti-social hours. Conditions in a lot of prisons are terrible. In some of them prisoners still slop out in the morning. The general level of dirt can be very bad.

"We can also be attacked at any time. You are dealing with murderers who will turn on you in a second even if you get on well with them. Around 90 per cent of the prison population is taking drugs. We don't know which ones are HIV positive so you just have to assume they all are. We've had cases of prisoners using chewing gum to stick bloody needles under door-handles so when you go to open a door you get pricked. You then have to wait for weeks to get the results of your blood test back.

"Many officers I've worked with have dealt with attempted suicides. That kind of thing doesn't just brush over you, but there is very little counselling for officers. No other workers have to put up with that kind of thing. Our basic salary is not that high when you take all those things into account. And the fact so much is spent on overtime is because there's a staff shortage, we're the last people that should be blamed on that."

However, while prison officers work in an extremely dangerous environment, the fact remains that their basic salary is comparable to that of nurses, teachers and social workers. But while these professionals must study at university for up to five years, the path to a career in the prison service is a much shorter one. After sitting an aptitude test and attending an interview, entrants undergo nine weeks training after which they are fully qualified.

The prison officers argue that most people would not be willing to work in a prison. They also say McDowell is trying to increase the working week to 47 hours, and not simply reduce overtime spending. Whether their earning power is to be eroded depends on the outcome of ongoing talks between all parties in the overtime dispute. While the prisons officers and prison service face the daunting task of resolving the overtime issue before McDowell's deadline of next Saturday, there is a sense of déjà vu about the current situation.

In April the Minister provoked the wrath of the Prison Officers' Association when he told delegates at its annual conference he was giving them 90 days to sort out the issue of overtime, describing the budget for it as "insatiable and indefensible". That was 185 days ago.

Senior figures in the prison service believe there may not be as much daylight as it seems between it and the prison officers. "There is a sense that psychologically the prison officers needed one 'no' vote under their belts before the process could move on, that they couldn't possibly agree to the first offer that came along. So now that that is out of the way we might find progress comes a bit more easily."

Many prison officers do not share that optimism.

Prison officers earned an average of just under €19,000 in overtime last year - or €59.3 million between 3,200 officers, according to figures contained in the Irish Prison Service's annual report for 2002.

Their basic salary starts at €24,500 and rises to a maximum of €34,000 over 13 years. It means a prison officer in his or her first year of service, earning the average overtime amount, will be paid €33,500. An officer with 13 years' experience earns, on average, €53,000. The figures compare very favourably with teaching and nursing salaries.

Under their common basic scale, primary and post-primary teachers start on a basic salary of just under €24,000, increasing to a maximum of €46,000 after 25 years' service. Before securing a job they spend up to four years at third level. And many work at schools for years as replacement teachers before being given a permanent position. They do not earn overtime, but are eligible for modest allowances for extra-curricular work, including marking and supervising exams.

Nurses, who are now required to complete a four-year degree course, start on a basic salary of just over €19,000, which rises to a maximum of just over €35,000 after 13 years. Nurses can earn overtime of up to €15,000 maximum per year, but most earn well below that figure.