Saturday 20 July 2019

Prison Service dealing with ‘unacceptable’ sick leave level

Director general Caron McCaffrey appeared before the Public Accounts Committee for the first time on Thursday.

(Paul Faith/PA)
(Paul Faith/PA)

By Michelle Devane, Press Association  

The Irish Prison Service is tackling an “unacceptable” level of absenteeism, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Director general Caron McCaffrey said the latest statistics recorded the sick leave rate at 15.7 days per year per employee.

Ms McCaffrey said: “Prison staff work in an extremely challenging environment in which, on a daily basis, they face unique circumstances unlike most others in the public sector.

“Notwithstanding this, the Irish Prison Service is tackling the unacceptable level of sick leave we are currently experiencing.”

She said they were doing so by providing staff with supports “to target the work-related causes of sick leave” and by analysing and identifying absences in a bid to reduce absenteeism.

Representatives from the Irish Prison Service and the Department of Justice were before the Public Accounts Committee on Thursday to address the 2017 spending of the country’s prisons.

It was the first time Ms McCaffrey has appeared before the committee to answer questions about Irish prisons.

She was appointed as the new director general last month by Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. She is the first woman to hold the role.

Ms McCaffrey told the committee there were limited international comparisons available to the service, as very few countries publish sick leave statistics for their prisons.

But she said from what was available, the Irish rate was at the lower end of the scale – when compared to other prison services.

In Northern Ireland, the comparable figure was 19.7, while in Denmark it was 21.9 and in Latvia it was 18.88 days per member of staff.

The new boss paid tribute to the staff, many of whom work in a “difficult and challenging environment” to maintain a safe, secure and humane prison system which contributes to safer communities.

Secretary general of the Justice Department Aidan O’Driscoll also appeared before the committee.

He raised the matter of a court affidavit by a serving prison officer that contains allegations of unauthorised surveillance in the country’s jails.

A whistleblower alleged in November that conversations between prisoners and their solicitors were being recorded and that tracking devices were placed on prison officers’ cars.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan ordered an independent examination into the matter after the allegations emerged.

Mr O’Driscoll said specifics of the case could not be discussed during the committee’s proceedings because of the court affidavit.

“Notwithstanding that it was the subject of a newspaper article, that affidavit has not yet been opened in court and so its details cannot be publicly discussed,” he said.

He added that they would await the outcome of the investigation before making any comment.

The details of the latest set of accounts relating to the country’s prisons were outlined during the meeting.

Mr O’Driscoll said the latest accounts showed the prison service’s gross expenditure was €326.9 million in 2017. More than two-thirds of that figure related to payroll costs, while 7% – or €22.8 million – was capital related.

There were more than 9,200 committals to prisons with a daily average of 3,680 prisoners in custody in 2017.

In total, there were 3,186 staff at the end of 2017.

The service operates 12 prisons across the country.

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