This column supported, and continues to support the move to close St Patrick’s Institution for young offenders. Not only was the regime, which was based on an adult prison, completely unsuitable for under-18s, but the building itself was cold, reeked of blocked toilets, and far too many young people were locked up alone for up to 23 hours a day.
However, when many of the 16- and 17-year-olds who would have ended up in St Pat’s were moved to Oberstown Children’s Detention Campus instead, it was far from a panacea despite the €50 million allocated to the project.
Oberstown used to have three separate schools, dealing mainly with a younger cohort, which are now amalgamated and enlarged. This new group are far more challenging. Some have convictions for multiple serious offences.
There were dramatic images from Oberstown last Monday, when eight young people climbed out on the roof and started a fire. The disturbances have been attributed to the industrial action taking place at the time, but they would be better viewed as a glimpse of the challenges that staff face on a daily basis.
Furthermore, when Monday’s disturbances started, many staff immediately left the picket in order to contain the situation. Ironically, that meant there were then more staff on duty than there would normally be on a roster.
Like much of the public service, Oberstown has been hit by retirements, leading to the loss of some of the most experienced staff. It has also had difficulty recruiting, in part because of a reluctance to commit to a job seen as unsafe. Naturally, inadequate staffing levels lead to even more unsafe situations.
Monday’s events happened to occur as cameras were rolling. But there have been numerous other disturbing events.
For example, more than 100 violent incidents took place in Oberstown last year, almost half of which were classed as “critical”, resulting in 65 employees being on sick leave. Some of those assaults were very serious, with one involving a stabbing with a broken cup.
While care of the young people is obviously the first priority, staff working in a challenging environment such as Oberstown have the right to be safe at work just like the rest of us.
From the unions’ standpoint, this is a dispute with management in order to ensure the health and safety of their members and of the young people with whom they work. They support the closure of St Patrick’s, and the move to a more humane approach. They want a safe environment where they will be adequately supported to achieve better outcomes.
However, from this writer’s point of view, there are deeper issues than the current dispute, and some of them stem directly from failures in government policy. While it was correct to close St Pat’s, it was incumbent on the State to make sure that there was an adequate replacement in place.
The young people who end up in Oberstown have already been failed in multiple ways, by families that do not function well, by communities, by the State and by cutbacks.
Young people in general were among the biggest losers during the economic crash, with cutbacks not only in education, social welfare and community employment schemes, but also in areas such as the School Completion programme, which aims to increase the numbers of young people completing primary and secondary education.
When School Completion Programme funding was cut by 25 per cent in 2009, warnings were given that so-called savings made by cutting early interventions such as this would eventually result in far higher costs in criminal and destructive behaviour.
Some young people in Oberstown are barely into their teens. In January there was one person aged 13, two aged 14, six aged 15, 21 aged 16, and 17 aged 17.
Just imagine what a 13- or 14-year-old has experienced already if he or she has ended up in a children’s detention centre.
Multiple levels of support, often including psychiatric support, are needed if that young person is ever to have any chance of functioning in society.
Even better would be reducing the numbers ending up there in the first place. But that takes a mindset that values all our citizens equally.
Aside from the impact of austerity, there are more immediate problems.
The people now being sent to Oberstown are both physically bigger and capable of greater violence. While adequate staff levels are vital, less obvious things make a huge difference.
For example, the way that the doors open meant that some of the young people were able to use a door to injure a staff member on Monday. The staff are calling for a full risk assessment of every aspect of Oberstown, and for putting protocols in place to deal with those risks.
No one wants to see this dispute continue. Previous government policies have contributed to the situation. This means there is an even greater onus on the Government to come up with solutions that respect both these damaged and challenging young people and the people who care for them.