Monday 18 December 2017

Oberstown youth detention centre staff 'frightened they may be killed' at work

* Shocking revelations of violence at the centre
* 31 members on sick leave as a result of attacks
* Attacks include stabbings, strangulation, biting
* Staff members suspended following recent break-out

Oberstown: child detention
Oberstown: child detention
Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

Problems at the State’s only detention facility for under 18-year-olds seems set to worsen after staff reported that four of their colleagues had been suspended in the wake of last week’s break-out.

The staff members have been suspended amid shocking revelations in a report surrounding conditions for staff at Ireland's only youth detention centre.

- 31 staff members out of 200 are currently on sick leave as a result of serious assaults by teenagers at the facility

- Injuries included concussion, nerve damage, throat injury due to strangulation, muscle and ligament damage

- Other serious injuries included stabbings, bites and having hair pulled out at the roots

- Staff describe situation as 'bedlam'

- Workers are now considering industrial action

The hard-pressed staff who have remained silent despite what they say is a situation resembling ‘Bedlam’ inside the Oberstown Centre in north County Dublin are understood to be considering industrial action.

One union source said the suspension of the staff, who are believed to have been on duty last Saturday week when four youths scaled the perimeter wall with ladders left by builders, was regarded as ‘scapegoating’.

Thirty-one members of staff out of a total of around 200 are currently on sick leave as a result of serious assaults by teenagers held at the supposedly ‘secure’ detention facility.

Oberstown House
Oberstown House

They have warned that assaults have become so serious and frequent that staff members fear going to work and are genuinely frightened that they may be killed.

Between March and July this year, nine female and 22 male staff have suffered injuries that included concussion, nerve damage, throat injury due to strangulation, muscle and ligament damage, stabbings, bites and having hair pulled out at the roots, according to a report submitted by staff to the Dail Committee on Health and Children.

The staff say the crisis inside the centre has been precipitated by bad planning and management of the programme to transfer young offenders from the St Patrick’s youth prison in the Mountjoy complex to Oberstown over the past two years.

This programme involves a €56million redevelopment of the Oberstown Campus to take up to 100 young offenders including some of the most violent young criminals in the State, many with multiple convictions for serious offences.

Despite the building of the new campus staff say that conditions inside have deteriorated to the point where staff genuinely fear for their lives going into work.

One source said of the staff suspensions yesterday: “There was real shock and a feeling that our members are being scape-goated. Conditions inside the campus are genuinely terrifying for many of our staff. We had more than 20 years here without any staff being assaulted or injured and almost no break-outs. Thirty-one staff are now out on sick leave due to serious injuries and this has increased the pressure on those staff who remain on duty.

“Staff considered immediate industrial action for two hours but decided to remain on duty because it would be highly dangerous to walk out without any arrangements for the safety of the younger people detained.”

Since the start of the year there have been three break-outs. One of the four youths who broke out last Saturday week suffered an ankle injury and handed himself back into custody but the other three were still at large this morning despite a reported nationwide hunt by gardai.

One of the main problems involved in the rapid expansion of the centre, which currently houses around 80 male and 10 female inmates, is said to be the lack of privacy and quiet areas where staff can speak to inmates and calm them down.

The expansion involved increasing the size of the sleeping quarters from four to 10 inmates in locked rooms which were apparently built without buzzers to alert staff. This resulted in inmates resorting to kicking doors in the dormitory units to attract attention and several of the doors were reportedly kicked off their hinges.

Staff say the acoustics are so bad inside the new centre that it is impossible to speak quietly to inmates to calm them down in violent situations. The inmates are also said to be constantly angry over being unable to watch TV in the communal recreation area where violence is said to break out on a frequent basis.

Before the expansion, which began under Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald in 2012 following decisions by the previous government, Oberstown and its adjoining Trinity House held around 60 inmates and staff were able to communicate on a one-to-one basis to reduce tensions. They say this is impossible in the new set-up due to the noise and lack of private space.

The centre was removed from the Irish Prisons Service in 2012 and placed under the control of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs under minister Dr James O’Reilly after Minister Fitzgerald was transferred to Justice in the aftermath of last year’s departure of Alan Shatter as Minister for Justice and Defence.

Staff are said to be deeply concerned that there will be a fatality inside Oberstown and say their families are in a constant staff of worry for their wellbeing.

The Oberstown expansion began after year’s of damning reports about violence and overcrowding in the St Patrick’s unit in Mountjoy and particularly after the killing of Gary Douch (21), from Coolock in Dublin who was beaten to death in July 2006. Douch was beaten to death by Stephen Egan then aged 23 but who weighed 16.5 stone and had previously been detained in the Central Mental Hospital after attempting to strangle a female prison officer in Mountjoy.

Douch and Egan were held along with six other young offenders in a basement ‘holding’ cell in St Patrick’s overnight when the fatal assault took place.

A report into the killing of Gary Douch found that Egan had previously been on anti-psychotic medicine but had received on treatment for five months prior to the killing. Egan was convicted in June 2009 of murdering Gary Douch who the court heard was killed after being beaten and kicked in a prolonged attack during which Egan defecated on his much smaller victim.

Staff at Oberstown say that they are now being required to deal with young prisoners as big and dangerous as Stephen Egan without any of the security resources available to staff in the main prison system.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs was asked this morning to comment on the reported suspension of the four staff at Oberstown but no reply was immediately available. 

Online Editors

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