They'll assault you if you burn the toast, says Oberstown worker
Staff at Ireland's new youth detention facility are 'worn out' coping with feral youngsters
Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30
Ireland's only youth detention facility is a powder keg ready to blow, according to a veteran youth care worker.
More than a fortnight after three out of four youths who absconded from the Oberstown Centre in Lusk, north county Dublin remain at large, a member of staff at the facility said conditions are now so volatile that it's only a matter of time before a staff member or inmate is killed.
Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Independent on condition of anonymity, the worker, Sean*, said he has never seen anything like the level of violence at the facility - even though it's technically not a prison and staff are not prison guards who would be trained to deal with violent offenders.
"In my opinion, if it keeps going the way it is, there will be a fatality of either staff or a boy," he said.
Currently about 70pc of approximately 100 inmates of the locked facility are on remand or serving custodial sentences for serious violent crimes, he said.
Even though the centre caters to "children" under the age of 18, in reality many of the inmates are already hardened career-criminals-in-waiting, with lengthy juvenile offence records or up to 100 outstanding criminal charges, he said.
Sean added that most are physically mature and strong and a large number are quite tall with no fear or respect for authority.
The most difficult cases among the young offenders includes a cadre of violent young criminals who were transferred from the St Patrick's youth wing at Mountjoy Prison over the past two years as part of a €56m redevelopment of the Oberstown campus as a stand-alone youth detention facility.
Unlike prison officers, staff at the centre are not guards per se, but effectively carers with social work backgrounds who cannot carry batons or pepper spray to contain unruly inmates or protect themselves, Sean explained.
"In the past [controlling them] was based on relationship building," he said.
Even five or six years ago, the typical inmate was a boy racer or wayward teenager who got into trouble with drugs or petty crime, he explained.
"Now you're dealing with a totally different animal. They're out of control. They're hardened, they're on their way into the mainstream of criminal violence," Sean said.
"They're not in for robbing the bread truck or not going to school. These lads are in for serious, serious charges [of violent offences]."
"Now, not every kid that comes into us is a thug, but since Pat's closed, it's increased dramatically. The chance of being hurt before was always possible, but now it's probable," he added.
Sean explained that if they're not suffering from psychological or psychiatric problems - which many are - they are often always angry, aggressive and violent with hair-trigger tempers.
"They'll assault you if the toast is burnt," he said.
"If you get a 17-year-old from St Patrick's who has been allowed to smoke his brains out there, he'll say, 'give me the f**king cigarettes or I'll wreck the place'. But if I gave him cigarettes I'd be sacked," Sean said of the strict no-smoking policy on campus.
"But the only time we can use handcuffs is to take them to and from court. We can't use handcuffs to control them," he said.
Sean added that the only way staff can restrain them is with their own physical strength, which is not so easy when you're dealing with a big, out-of-control 17-year-old who is highly aggressive and violent.
They're also no match for female care workers - some of whom have been threatened with rape by the inmates.
More than 30 out of 200 staff at the centre are currently on sick leave after being attacked by inmates, including being bitten, choked, stabbed or having their hair pulled out at the roots
Injuries include concussions, nerve and muscle and ligament damage.
"You could have anything from spitting in your face to head butts, kicks, punches to throwing plates at your head. Staff have been threatened with knives. But as far as I know, no one has ever been charged," Sean said
While Sean is one of the few staff who hasn't suffered serious injuries, he said his normal method of dealing with the inmates by establishing trust and building a relationship no longer works; not only becausenow you're dealing with an entirely different animal," but because the inmates are given such short sentences they're often out before the staff even get to know their names.
"Before, nearly all were in for two-year sentences. Now you have lads in for just two months. They all get remission whether they beat the b******s out of us or not," he said.
Despite the changed nature of their "clients" since the new facility was built, staff have not received any training over the past three years from the centre's management - now under the jurisdiction of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs - to accommodate their client's "needs".
And while some inmates did undergo an initial psychological or psychiatric assessment, Sean said he is unaware of any ongoing psychiatric care or counselling to help these troubled youths.
"If you were walking down the street and you saw some of these boys, you'd immediately cross the street or get in your car and stay there," he said.
The daily barrage of assaults and grief from the inmates is taking a serious toll on staff morale, which Sean says has hit an all-time low.
"But I'm doing it so long, I'll cope," he said. But it still doesn't make it any easier reporting for work each day.
He said even the physical environment of the campus is depressing now after it was transformed into a super juvenile detention facility "that looks like a prison and sounds like a prison" after Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter announced in 2013 that juvenile offenders could no longer be imprisoned at St Patrick's Institution following repeated criticism by human rights groups.
Meanwhile, the three inmates who escaped from Oberstown on July 25 after they scaled a wall using a painter's ladder, are still on the lam despite a nationwide manhunt, a Department of Youth and Children spokeswoman confirmed.
The fourth inmate turned himself in after injuring his ankle following the brazen break-out - the third one since the start of the year.
"The location of the three boys currently on abscond from the campus is now an operational matter for An Garda Siochana. The Department notes that Oberstown management will, in line with procedure, continue to liaise with the Garda authorities as required. The circumstances of the incident are currently being reviewed by Oberstown management, with a view to addressing any identified security or other issues. This process is ongoing and a report is to be provided to the Oberstown board and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in due course.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity