'Criminal gangs cannot continue their work' - Justice Minister vows prison clampdown
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has today acknowledged the increasing challenge placed by violent criminal gangs in our prisons and the difficulties prison officers have in dealing with them.
Speaking at the Prison Officers’ Association annual conference in Galway today, she said gangs are “unrelenting in wanting to continue their criminal activity”.
“We know the resources that gangs have. We know the kind of sustained work that we have to do, whether it is in our communities or in our prisons, to ensure that we are continually challenging and making sure that criminal gangs cannot continue their work wherever they are,” she said.
"They have more and more resources as we know, and we have to make sure we have the resources in place to deal with that challenge,” she added.
The minister was addressing one of the key issues raised by the Prison Officers’ Association at the conference.
Its president Stephen Delaney said gang warfare and drug culture continue to flourish within the prison estate.
“In the current environment we have threats, assaults, drugs, weapons, attacks on family homes and the capacity to control matters outside the prison,” he said.
He called for the minister to develop a system that removes the power from the gangs and the gang members within our prisons by whatever means are necessary.
“Prison gangs should not decide what is best within our prison, the state is responsible for all that happens inside our prisons and surely it is not going to cede this responsibility to people who have committed the most serious crimes – and many who have no intention whatever of changing their ways,” he said.
He called on a specific unit to be set-up to isolate violent and influential gang members.
“The only solution Minister is isolation so instead of closing our places of work could we open one that will prevent these individuals from spreading their influence through the entire estate,” he asked.
The issue of violence in prisons, and attacked on prison officers was also raised at the conference.
Mr Delaney said that in a recent analysis conducted by the State Claims Agency the projected level of assaults by prisoners on prison staff for 2017 was estimated at 107. “Let’s just think about that for a minute; more than two prison officers per week will be assaulted in the course of their work,” he said.
“The nature of these assaults included concussion, lacerations, cuts, fractures burns and bites. The most of these injuries were to the head and face thereby leaving a permanent reminder to the injured officer of the incident,” he added.
He called for adequate protection measures such as batons, incapacitant spray and body cameras, to be implement to improve safety for prison staff.
On the issue of pay the POA accused the Minister of wanting to “play with the wind in both halves” by acknowledging an improved economy but resisting pay restoration to 2008 levels.
“We simply cannot wait any longer to have our 2008 pay levels restored. Other sectors are now benefitting from our wage cuts – and we have yet to benefit – this is surely unfair and unjust,” said Mr Delaney.
In response, Minister Fitzgerald said the country continues to face a challenging, although improving, economic situation.
“Clearly we want to reach out as much as we can. The pay talks will be commencing, the government will approach that wanting to reach out to public sector workers, but there are constraints,” she said.