Wednesday 21 February 2018

Staff fear lives at risk from attacks at children's 'jail'

Staff are forbidden from calling gardai and can't use handcuffs against violent offenders in crisis-stricken centre, writes Jim Cusack

REPORT: Minister Katherine Zappone has called for a report on the recent break-out. Photo: Tom Burke
REPORT: Minister Katherine Zappone has called for a report on the recent break-out. Photo: Tom Burke
Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

Leaked memos seen by the Sunday Independent reveal the crisis that is taking place inside the State's only 'campus' for serious young criminals.

Up to 50 under 18 year olds are held in the Oberstown centre north of Dublin, and staff are warning it is only a matter of time before an inmate or member of staff is murdered.

Staff say their lives are at risk due to rules governing the centre that prevent them from calling gardai in dangerous situations, forbid them from using handcuffs to restrain very violent inmates, provide them with no protective clothing or equipment, and forbid them from searching inmates for drugs or weapons.

The rules were laid down in 2014 in response to diktats from the European Council on 'child-friendly justice'. Under the guidelines, all under 18 year olds are de-facto 'children' and cannot be restrained.

On October 15 last year, according to a staff member, "a young person barricaded several staff into the office in unit 8 while he systematically destroyed the lounge area. These staff were prevented from exiting the room for a prolonged period and suffered considerable trauma as a result. There was talk at the time of setting fire to barricades."

Staff asked management to assess the risks to staff of "being held against their will in the office", "a fire being set with the intention of harming people trapped in that space" and "the danger of a hostage situation arising in a space in which there is only one way in and out".

The latest break-out from the centre last week followed escalating attacks on staff who have now asked for an 'escape hatch' to be built into the central staff office due to fear by staff of being trapped and unable to escape in the event of a fire or attack by inmates.

One of the abiding main concerns is over a directive from management informing staff that if they call gardai without management approval they will face disciplinary action.

The directive was reinforced in a memo to staff last month stating: "The gardai will only come on campus at the invitation of the director/designate or if they have a court order authorising them to come on campus for a specific issue. The responsibility to manage the behaviour of the young people on the campus falls to the management and staff on the campus.

"If a staff member wishes to make a complaint to the Garda Siochana about an incident or assault, this is the staff's right to do so in their personal capacity. As previously stated, the campus will support the individual staff member within this process. It is for the gardai to determine what actions are then necessary to investigate the incident and/or alleged assault, and through liaison with the Juvenile Liaison Office and the Director of Public Prosecutions, if charges are to be brought forward.

"I again wish to state clearly, individual staff members, unless designated to do so, do not have the authority on behalf of the director to contact the gardai and request their assistance to come on to the campus to address an operational or behavioural management issue.

"To do so is in breach of a directive from this office and may result in disciplinary action."

Staff say this has left them in a situation where they cannot protect themselves and other inmates in violent situations.

Oberstown currently operates under guidelines set down by the European Committee on the Prevention of Torture (CPT), which forbids the use of handcuffs on under 18s.

Read more: '65 staff were the victim of assaults last year - over 3,000 sick days taken because of injury and stress' - striking staff

Following a series of attacks and the barricading of staff in the central admin office, staff asked for an escape route due to fear of being trapped in a potentially life-threatening situation.

They were informed their concerns were being taken into account in a reply from management which stated: "With regard to the staff office, we propose that the square window leading from the office to the entrance lobby be replaced with an escape type hatch. This was considered by OPW (Office of Public Works) architects for suitability and was approved and included as part of the residential units and refurbishment works."

A "complete review" of fire risks is to be undertaken next month, staff were informed in a memo sent at the start of July.

Of increasing concern to staff is their inability to search young people for drugs or weapons on their arrival or after visits. Under guidelines, staff say they are forbidden from searching the "genital area" of inmates, and this is resulting in what one source described as "any amount of drugs" coming into the centre.

One memo describes how staff dealt with an inmate who was under the influence of drugs and acting in a violent manner last December. A member of staff came to the assistance of a manager and two other care staff who were restraining a youth.

"I took over and held young person on the floor. I immediately noticed that the boy was a very red colour and turned to my manager and asked here what the preceding events were.

"She informed me that it was suspected that the young person had taken a lot of tablets throughout the night before and his behaviour at this point was confirming those suspicions."

The youth "initially co-operated" and agreed to be led to his bedroom "but began to struggle when approaching his room. He had to be held and escorted to his room where I tried to place him on his bed and leave without any further struggle.

"He became very agitated, elbowing me twice in the face and the struggle ended up on the floor. He then spat in my face several times before I could disengage and leave the room. The young person eventually ended up in hospital for two days with what I was told was an irregular heartbeat."

The minister responsible for Oberstown, Catherine Zappone, has called for a report into the break-out by five inmates last weekend during which staff were effectively held captive for up to three hours and were forbidden from calling garda assistance. The five were detained by gardai outside the centre.

Sunday Independent

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