Wednesday 12 December 2018

‘Unwritten rule seems to be gone’: concern over attacks - including sexual assault - on female prison officers

John Clinton of the Prison Officers’ Association
John Clinton of the Prison Officers’ Association
Conor Feehan

Conor Feehan

CONCERN over attacks on female prison officers - including a sexual assault - were raised at the Prison Officer’s Association’s (POA) annual conference.

The POA expressed concerns about what it sees as an increasing number of attacks on female prison officers.

In the past year a female officer was sexually assaulted, while another was "smashed off a wall".

“Attacks on female officers happen much more so than before. In days gone by we never encountered anything like that level of assaults on them,” said Jim Mitchell, POA deputy general secretary.

“It was always an unwritten rule that female prisoners weren’t touched, but prisoners seem to have set that rule aside now.”

Outlining different attacks that have happened, Mr Mitchell said in the last year there was a sexual assault on a female prison officer in the Midlands.

“There was another attack on a female prisoner in Mountjoy where the back of her hair was grabbed and she was smashed off a wall,” he said.

Addressing the concerns raised by the POA, director general Michael Donnellan said he did not believe female officer were being targeted specifically.

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The issue of violent crime gangs operating their international empires from behind bars while increasingly exposed and under-resourced prison officers are getting injured was also raised today at the Kilkenny conference.

“Gangs have a hierarchy within the prison estate and have a number of ‘contractors’ that they hire ‘work’ out to. In total there are nearly 30 factions within Mountjoy that cannot mix for a variety of reasons,” said POA deputy general secretary Jim Mitchell.

Speaking at its annual conference in Kilkenny, he said the proliferation and power of gangs within our prisons is a matter of major concern.

POA general secretary John Clinton said Irish gangs work on a global basis with huge resources and finances and they can have great influence within the prison system.

“When they are caught and imprisoned they reform within the prison system and then they operate as they do on the outside. The impact is very, very difficult on staff. The logistics of keeping criminal gangs apart alone is a huge issue,” he said.

Mr Clinton said that gang murders and drug shipments are also being organised from behind bars, and the latest advances in technology that have allowed the miniaturisation of mobile phones makes it more difficult for prison officers to detect them.

“It’s well-known that hits have been ordered from inside prison on mobile phones. They can get up to anything that they want to to control their empire from inside prison,” he said.

He called on Justice Minister Charles Flanagan to place all violent gang prisoners in the high security Portlaoise Prison.

“It’s the only prison in the State equipped to deal with them. These gangs must be controlled or we will lose control of our prisons,” he said.

But the proposal of placing a large number of gang members in one prison was rejected by Michael Donnellan, the Director General Irish Prison Service, who said gangs have to be kept separated to disrupt their activity and communication.

But he added that it is intended to use Portlaoise more in the second half of the year for the more serious people who are intimidating within the prison gangs.

Mr Donnellan also disputed the number of gang factions within the prison system, saying there are a core ten involving around 100 individuals.

The POA also took issue with how the statistics on the numbers of assaults on its members are collated.

It said the figures only include direct attacks on prison officers, and not injuries received when they intervene on attacks between prisoners.

“There’s statistics showing there were 107 assaults across the entire prison estate in the last 12 months. However, our thought is that there is significantly more and that assaults of prison officers where they intervene between prisoners attacking each other has not been recorded,”

But Michael Donnellan rejected that figures were being minimised.

“As the Director General I take assaults of our staff very, very seriously. I mean last year for instance we had 104 assaults by prisoners on prison officers but on top of that we had 72 injury on duties because of interventions that prison officers make. So I'm very happy to clarify that and to have a way of reporting that so that people can see the full extent of injury on duty within the prison service,” he explained.

Prison overcrowding was also addressed today.

Much work had been done in the past to achieve single occupancy of cells and the provision of in-cell sanitation, something which improved the prison environment for everyone within it.

But the president of the POA Stephen Delaney has said he can see that situation now reversing.

“Unfortunately we are back to a situation where all of our prisons are full to capacity. This causes problems on a daily basis to all of our staff,” he said.

“In terms of accommodation people are sleeping on mattresses, they are doubling up. You’re relocating one prisoner from one landing to the next to ensure his safety as he cannot associate with a different faction,” he said.

“The overriding problem in the larger prisons is that there are insufficient facilities to separate prisons from the different factions. You need space, you need facilities,” he added.

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