Staff in high-security jail want to keep 'danger pay'
STAFF at the nation's maximum security prison want to hold on to their special allowance for dealing with the most dangerous criminals in the State.
Prison officers are resisting a move by the State to end the allowance for working in Portlaoise jail.
The Government is threatening to remove the allowance of €30.69 a week on the basis that the number of subversive prisoners housed in Portlaoise is well down on the total in the early 1980s when it was introduced.
But prison staff say they still have to deal with dissident republicans as well as thugs from the biggest criminal gangs. They argue that gangland criminals pose as big a danger and threat to their safety as the subversives.
The annual conference of the Prison Officers' Association heard in Sligo yesterday that there are about 60 subversive inmates held in Portlaoise.
Association general secretary John Clinton estimated that another 40 could come into the system in the near future as a result of cases before the courts.
He noted that the Army had a full-time presence in the prison and said the military did not operate in any other jail in the country. He said that as well as the subversives, the staff were dealing with associates of the most dangerous gangs in the country, and they were placed in the same security category by the State as the dissidents.
Mr Clinton argued that because of that environment, it would be unjust and unfair to withdraw the allowance.
Association executive member Gabriel Keaveny said that, while there had been improvements in some jails such as Mountjoy in recent months, there was still chronic overcrowding in the two women's prisons – the Dochas Centre in the Mountjoy complex and Limerick prison – while Castlerea and Cork also operated beyond bed capacity.
He pointed out that in 2007 there were 3,200 prisoners in custody. Today that figure had increased to 4,065, an increase of more than 20pc.
Meanwhile, prison management has been accused of allowing attacks on staff to be carried out with "alarming regularity" because of a breakdown in communication between jails.
They claim that measures are put in place to deal with prisoners who are persistently assaulting staff. But when those offenders are transferred, those measures were allowed to lapse by local management.
Association deputy general secretary Jim Mitchell said the life of the prison officer was hugely dangerous. He pointed out that last week in Mountjoy there had been three separate incidents of assault.
In two of them, officers had boiling water thrown over them. One officer was struck viciously about the head while another had a blood spillage smeared over his face.
Mr Mitchell said his association did not accept that assaults were simply part of the job.
In the past 12 months they had negotiated a policy with prison service management on how to deal with violent and disruptive prisoners. Unfortunately, he said, local management in some prisons were bypassing elements of that policy. As a result, violent offenders were being allowed to get away with assaults on staff.
Commenting on the procedures for dealing with complaints, association president Stephen Delaney said 94pc of the complaints lodged by prisoners in the past year had not been upheld. The current procedure was not fair and was balanced against prison officers, he claimed.
He said staff also had rights and in cases where inquiries by gardai, prison management and an outside investigators found there was no case to answer, it was not right that a further appeal for an investigation was initiated on the directions of the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly.