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24 May 2022

Prison Officers - "The Forgotten Front Line Service"

Prison Officers - "The Forgotten Front Line Service"

Address by Mr Tony Power, President, Prison Officers Association to Annual Delegate Conference, Sligo 

On behalf of the National Executive Council of the Prison Officers Association it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to this year’s Annual Delegate Conference here in the Radisson Hotel, Sligo. It is fitting that, after having to cancel our last two conferences due to the dreaded Global Pandemic, we can all gather here today without masks and social distancing to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Prison Officers Association.

I wish to extend a warm welcome to the the Cathaoirleach of Sligo County Council, Councilor Paul Taylor and thank him for his address here this morning. I would like to welcome the Minister for Justice, Ms. Helen Mc Entee, the Director General of the Irish Prison Service, Ms. Caron McCaffrey and her officials to our conference.

I would also like to extend fraternal greetings to our colleagues from Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Europe and to our fellow trade unionists. I also extend a warm welcome to our invited guests, the national media and in particular our delegates who are present here today.

As we have had national elections since our last conference in 2019 I’d like to welcome our “nearly” new National Officers, Mr. Mark Morrison, General Treasurer, Mr. Terry Goodson, Vice-President and Mr. Dermot Kelly, Information Officer. It has been a pleasure to work with you over the past 2 years.

As Branch elections took place in January this year I also take this opportunity to welcome our new branch committee members, many of whom are attending their first conference. I hope it is an enjoyable experience for you all and that you can take something from the next few days that will assist you in your difficult day to day role as a staff representative.

I would like to extend the best wishes of everyone here today to our colleagues who have been the victim of serious assault or other traumatic incidents whilst carrying out their duties on behalf of the state over the past three years - and to also recognize the impact this can have on the families of those who have been affected.

HISTORY OF THE POA

This is a proud year for our association as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of our foundation. I am extremely honoured to stand before you today as President of this association and to follow in the footsteps of so many dedicated previous presidents who gave so generously of their time in an effort to better the working conditions of their colleagues. Had it not been for these people, and indeed all the other representatives of our union at both National and local level over the years, I shudder to think what our working conditions would be like today.

The Prison Officers’ Association was founded in 1947 by members who had had seen and experienced enough of the atrocious working conditions, and also the oppression, suspicion and fear on a daily basis from the authorities. Almost all of their association work at the time had to be conducted when they were off duty. In those early days many members who attended association branch meetings found themselves transferred without warning although this had the unintended positive result of spreading the news of this new fledgling organization across the country’s prisons.

Despite the obstacles put in place and the opposition of both prison management and government the association continued to grow and, although slowly, managed to make progress on behalf of its members. Pay increases, reduction in the weekly working hours, guaranteed rest days and the introduction of overtime payments and gender pay equity. I don’t have to remind you that we here today are still benefiting from the courage and determination of these early day leaders.

Jim Wardick, the first full time General Secretary was elected at the Annual Delegate Conference in 1973 and worked from an office at the Main Gate in St Patricks’ Institution. Jim is part of the proud history of our union, these gentlemen here to my left are the present and any of you out there can be our future.

The first industrial actions took place in 1974 in St Patrick and Portlaosie. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s the number of disputes escalated culminating in the only “All Out” National dispute in 1988. With over 98% of members supporting the strike this gave the union significant strength in future negotiations. Over the next few years, the union was hugely successful in improving working conditions, rostering, the provision of PPE and the delivery of a shorter working week to mention but a few.

Since those early days and right up to today our union has continued to grow. We have over 3200 members, a union membership of about 98%, a figure most other unions can only dream about. It shows that in the eyes of our members we are doing a good job on their behalf and I’d like to salute those pioneers from 1947 and all those who have taken up the mantle of staff representation in the years since. The job of a union is never done, but today we recognize all that has been achieved by those who have gone before. Some of those pioneers are still with us, and regretfully some are not – we record our gratitude to one and all here today.

PAY

Minister, I must take the opportunity here today to address the issue of Public Sector Pay, POA members accepted the terms of Building Momentum in January 2021 given the economic circumstances that were in place at that time, viewing this short-term agreement as a sensible way forward taking into consideration the impact of the Global pandemic. However, now some fifteen months on there has been a huge economic shift from where we were back in January 2021.

It has now become very clear that the immediate issue our members face is the impact on living standards from rising inflation. This will not be temporary. The ESRI recently projected that inflation would rise by nearly 12% over this year and next and this could actually be an under-estimate. If this happens, it will be the largest two-year inflation growth since the 1980s.

The terms of the current Public Service agreement must be used to deal with the situation we now find ourselves in and we must now have pay increases that compensate our members for spiralling inflation.

Inflation is being clearly driven by energy costs and transport fuel. Wage increases will not push them higher because they are set by global markets outside the State. Over the last year inflation rose by 5½%. Energy and petrol costs rose by 30%.”

I can assure all here today and the entire membership that the POA will fight vigorously for a fair pay increase for Prison Officers.

A Minister coming to a Conference like this and praising our members for the work that they do is of little comfort when we find ourselves in a cost-of-living crisis. Supermarkets or Petrol Stations do not accept praise as a form of payment.

What is needed is the concern of workers to be heard and met. We are now in a very different space than we were in January 2021 and a pay increase is justifiably needed as inflation continues to spiral out of control. The terms of the Building Momentum agreement will no longer suffice – A pay increase that deals adequately with the spiralling inflation is the only solution. We request and expect your full support Minister as we address this critical pay issue.

Minister, I know our General Secretary has raised our serious concerns with you relating to the Public Service Single Pension Scheme which was introduced in January 2013. It was not the first time we have raised our concerns on this Pension Scheme. Dating back to March 2012 we raised numerous concerns relating to fast accrual grades with the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, pointing out that fast accrual grades such as Prison Officers and Fire Fighters would end up significantly worse off than other standard Public Service grades in this New Pension Scheme.

At that time reports that we had commissioned showed that, for example, a HEO in the Civil Service on the Public Service Single Pension Scheme (Career averaging) lost approx. 10% in pension terms compared to HEOs on the Pre and Post 1995 Pension schemes. For a Prison Officer on the Public Service Single Pension Scheme this loss showed at approx. 20% when compared to a Prison Officer on the Pre and Post 1995 Pension schemes.

However, those reports were all compiled on the basis that Prison Officers retiring on the Public Service Single Pension Scheme would be receiving a supplementary pension. The 20% loss we calculated must now consider a further loss of € 12,950 per annum as there has been no legislation passed to provide for a supplementary pension for fast accrual grades that are on the Public Service Single Pension Scheme. This means a Prison Officer retiring on completion of their full service on this scheme will have approximately 50% of the Pension I will be on.

We were informed in 2018 during discussions on the Public Service Stability Agreement that legislation would be drafted to address the supplementary pension for fast accrual members on this scheme however this has not happened. This results in a huge devaluation to the Pensions of fast accrual grades that are on this career averaging scheme. Fast accrual grades are also made to pay a higher rate of pension than non-fast accrual grades on the Public Service Single Pension Scheme.

This is clearly now a huge issue and charging fast accrual grades to pay a higher Pension rate where there is no supplementary pension at mandatory retirement age is clearly not justifiable, neither is the nonpayment of the supplementary pension to people after loyal lengthy service.

Minister, your Government must rectify this huge injustice.

COVID-19

The 75th Anniversary of our union should only be a cause for celebration but unfortunately as we are dealing with the Department of Justice as an employer there is little for our members to celebrate. As we attempt to put the past 2 years behind us and try to recover as a country from the Covid pandemic I’m aware that the last thing people want to hear about is Covid-19 however I believe it would be remiss of me not to outline the treatment our members received from our employer and our government throughout the pandemic. Delegates, it should come as no surprise to you that our members were once again not found wanting in a time of crisis. We stood up and we were counted when it mattered.  We have of course done it before, from the AIDS epidemic in the late 80’s and early 90’s to Foot and Mouth and TB. Our members have been to the forefront through them all.

The Irish Prison Service has been held up as the Poster Child of the pandemic and in fairness through the collaborative work between the IPS and the Prison Officers Association we managed to keep covid out of our prisons and places of detention for a substantial amount of time. That was no easy job as the goalposts moved on an almost daily basis, the supply of PPE was intermittent to say the least and the infection rates spiraled. Face Masks, Goggles, Aprons, sanitizer were all in short supply.  Prison Officers were remarkably placed in cohort 9 on the list for vaccinations when they became available, a cohort that included, amongst others, a section of society that we get paid to lock up.

Minister, the Prison Officers Association sent numerous letters to both yourself and your colleague, the Minister for Health, outlining our concerns and giving the cold hard facts that we were the only workers in the state that were being sent to work in acute hospitals without being vaccinated. The most senior officials in the Department of Justice together with yourself Minister, decided for some unknown reason to prioritise other groups for vaccination ahead of frontline Prison Officers. This decision was taken in circumstances where the Department of Justice was fully aware of the risks involved to our members. As it transpired, we were the only group allowed on a Covid Ward without the need for vaccination. At the same time Prison Officers were working in full PPE with positive cases on Isolation Landings and Covid Wards completely unprotected and ignored by you and your department.

Minister, when our members were NOT ALLOWED to come to work having been a close contact of a positive case your government took a decision not to pay us. Furthermore, members of the Gardai and the Fire Brigade are being paid their premium payments while off duty on Covid related work absences while Prison Officers are not. The payment of attendance allowances to members of the Gardai and the Fire Brigade includes periods of self-isolation due to the Garda or Firefighter being a close contact with a fellow work colleague or family member that had Covid-19. We have the proof of this through FOI applications. Prison Officers are not allowed to attend for duty if we have been a close contact to a fellow work colleague or family member to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus in the Prison System, yet we are being treated differently to the Gardai and Fire Service when it comes to the payment of attendance allowances for Covid-19 related absences. Minister you must address this issue.

If this pandemic has told us anything it is that despite the soundbites from Government and the Prison Service about the great job we are doing, when push comes to shove, we know exactly where we stand in their estimation. Prison Staff were left to “Paddle their own canoe” and nobody in the Department of Justice gave our members or their families a second thought. Minister, it can never be forgotten how you utterly failed us in favour of other groups during this pandemic. I can assure you that the Prison Officers’ Association will not forget this abhorrent injustice. How could we?

CONTROL & RESTRAINT

Minister, just about 3 years ago I stood on this stage to address our 2019 Annual Delegate conference. At that exact time one of our members was in the dock of a Circuit Court not too far from here. His alleged crime you might ask? DOING HIS JOB.

He stood accused of assaulting a prisoner and of making a false statement to Gardaí. CCTV quite clearly showed that the officer had done nothing wrong and the only false statement that was made was that of the prisoner. This officer followed his training to the letter of the law, it was textbook, straight from the Irish Prison Service Control & Restraint Manual, a manual the judge said held no weight in his court but a manual that is still in use today. Despite the fact that two independent expert witnesses were willing to testify that the actions of this officer on the day were exemplary and that the CCTV footage of the incident could be used as a Training Video, despite all this Minister, the officer and his family had to endure the stresses of an entire trial because the Prison Service refused to stand up and protect their staff member. This officer stood in court and listened as his employer offered him no protection in front of the judge. The employer merely stated that the Irish Prison Service had no role to play. How convenient?

Thankfully the jury stood up and found the officer Not Guilty

Minister, In the recent past in another one of the state’s prisons our members had to deal with another violent uncompliant prisoner. Again, these officers used all their specialized training in Control and Restraint. Control & Restraint training in the Irish Prison Service is scenario-based, and while it is recognized as the most effective training system, it can never fully replicate the challenges faced by staff in some live situations. While every effort is made by staff to ensure the safety of the prisoner it is inevitable that at times people will get injured, both staff and prisoners. In the incident in question the prisoner, while violently resisting staff, allegedly suffered a black eye. This prisoner was at the time one of the most high-profile prisoners in the state and when the Director General was made aware of the situation she immediately visited the prison in question insisting that the staff involved be suspended without any procedure or investigation. Thankfully, in this case, the governor intervened.

These two incidents go to highlight the difficulty our members are facing on an almost daily basis. All it takes is for a prisoner to make a category A complaint and our members are under investigation for “Doing their Job”.

In court the Irish Prison Service is refusing to take the stand to outline the training staff receive, staff adherence to IPS Policies and the C&R Manual, which is a 300-page blueprint of all C&R tactics and techniques. The IPS and the Chief States Solicitor are also refusing to indemnify staff who may find themselves in front of the courts for following their training ….and the rulebook.

The Prison Officers Association will continue to support our members in these situations, but the day is fast approaching when we will have to advise our members when there is trouble in our prisons to step back and just call the Gardai. This is something we would not wish to do, however, we have a duty to protect our members.

Minister, we cannot continue to ask our members to follow a policy which you will not indemnify them for.

The Prison Officers’ Association calls on you to stand behind our members or Stand Down Control & Restraint

We can no longer be asked or expected to intervene in disturbances at the risk of losing our livelihood.

REGIME MANAGEMENT PLAN

For years the Prison Officers’ Association had been calling for an end to the Prison Services policy of unlocking prisons regardless of staff shortages. Safety for staff was a dirty word and unlocking prisons on a wing and a prayer was the order of the day. Staff assaults were at an outrageous level, especially as most were avoidable. In the midst of this chaos prisoner on prisoner assaults were also rampant.

Staff had to deal with the fallout from these assaults on a daily basis. Management just stood back and watched and continued to order unlock.

Finally the Regime Management Plan was agreed and became a policy of the Irish Prison Service. The principles of a Regime Management Plan are simplistic with safe systems of work at its core. It took individual Governors numerous attempts to produce an RMP for their prison. The concept of a safe system of work was alien to most Governors.

In January 2020, with an unknown pandemic on the horizon, the penny finally dropped….. WE MAY HAVE NO STAFF…What will we do?

INTRODUCE A REGIME MANAGEMENT PLAN WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT

What happened with the introduction of RMPs?

Assaults on staff dropped significantly.

Prisoner on Prisoner assaults reduced dramatically. In fact, according to figures given to us by the Irish Prison Service, in the first 3 months of Lockdown and after RMP’s were introduced in prisons assaults on staff reduced by almost 50% and we saw a reduction of almost 66% in Prisoner-on-Prisoner assaults.

Our work environment improved almost overnight and prisoners who were willing to engage in structured activity were getting access to services.

When new management arrived in Wheatfield Prison in 2021, they introduced a RMP which prioritized Work Training and Structured Activity. With the co-operation of the Wheatfield Branch Committee the atmosphere in the prison improved dramatically. Prior to the introduction of the RMP, outside of essential services, such as the kitchen and the laundry, no prisoners were attending workshops but within two months of its introduction all workshops had reopened, and structured activity was available for prisoners in both the AM and PM. This was mirrored in all prisons across the estate where a Regime Management Plan was properly implemented.

Unfortunately, as it is proving difficult to obtain the figures for the past 12 months, I am unable to provide a comparison between the assaults that took place during Lockdown and what has taken place since most restrictions were lifted but anecdotal reports suggest that they are once again on the increase and this is of immense concern to the Prison Officers Association. Just last week we had a number of staff injured, thankfully none seriously, in incidents in Mountjoy Prison

Minister, today I call on you to guarantee that you will protect our members from rogue governors. If you ensure compliance with Regime Management Plans you will allow our members to work professionally and deliver the services they are capable of in a safe and secure manner.

STAFF RECOGNITION

The staff recognition and merit award policy continue to trundle along. I spoke 3 years ago of the intention of the National Staff Recognition Committee to standardize all presentations to staff, 21-, 30- and 40-year service medals and in particular the Retirement Presentation and while a lot of delays over the past three years can be attributed to the pandemic this is not one of them, it is simply down to the inefficiencies of our employer. To date not one retiring member has received this presentation.

Director, you write regularly on your blog on PRISM about how conscious you are of the great work done by Prison Officers on behalf of the state, about the amazing work done in keeping Covid-19 out of the prisons for so long. Indeed, this has been recognized by many, including at international level. In late 2021 the Local Staff Recognition Committee in one of our prisons received a Nomination Form proposing that the efforts of each and every staff member be recognized in the form of a National Award. The IPS have decided that they would commission a plaque to be displayed in each prison to commend the staff on their efforts. The walls are still blank!!!!, Brings back memories of the bitter taste left in Prison Officers mouths by the refusal to award Prison Staff the 1916 commemorative medal solely because of the cost!!

The POA, however felt that every one of its members deserved to be recognized for the amazing work they carried out throughout one of the toughest periods in the history of the Prison Service. To that extent we commissioned a Commemorative Challenge Coin that will be presented to all our members over the coming weeks.

But we are not surprised by this, its par for the course. When you work for the Irish Prison Service, well if you are a HUMAN working for the Irish Prison Service this is what you can expect. What does it say to your HUMAN staff when an officer who is retiring after 30 years of exemplary service is informed that there can be no ceremony, no recognition, no acknowledgment of that service but within weeks the local media, Governors and Chiefs all gathered to celebrate Fido’s retirement. I am calling him “Fido” to protect his identity under GDPR. Pictures of Fido appeared in local newspapers and in the Irish Prison Service magazine…..the retiring officers didn’t. I am not, for one minute, trying to underplay the role played by the drug dogs in the prison but I do believe that what is “Good for the Goose is good for the Gander” or in this case “What is good for the dog is good for the officer”.

Delegates you are all well aware of the outlandish contributions made by An Taoiseach to Dail Eireann last year.  The allegations which were completely without foundation remain on the record of the Dail, are scurrilous in the extreme and condemn the men and women of our Operational Support Group in a setting not too unlike a court in North Korea. They were afforded no due process or fair hearing by Mr Martin.  Again the Department of Justice and our Minister completely failed to stand up for Prison Officers, even in a situation where they had in their possession the findings of a comprehensive investigation which found no wrong doing.  Minister you should immediately have the record of the Dail corrected and issue a complete apology of our members – it is the least they deserve.

Minister, the ultimate insult has come just lately when an Irish Prison Service official has queried the attendance of Part-Time National Officers at the funerals of deceased serving members. This mark of respect has been a tradition in the Prison Officers’ Association long before my time and I hope will continue long into the future. I am sure that you would agree with this sentiment and instruct your officials accordingly.

It is very difficult to have respect for someone who does not respect you.

CONCLUSION

Delegates, I would like to conclude by again saying how proud I am to be President of this fine association and to represent you as you go about your duties on behalf of the state. I am going to finish by reading to you something that I found online. These are not my words, but I can guarantee you that they will resonate with every single woman and man who have donned the uniform of a Prison Officer.

A prison officer is a FIRST RESPONDER. Often having to give CPR to someone who has attempted to take their own life and summon help from the fantastic nursing teams in the prisons.

A prison officer is expected to POLICE a place that only contains people who have committed criminal offences and often violent ones. Keeping people safe on the inside and keeping them from getting back to the outside before the correct time.

A prison officer is a FIRE FIGHTER, often extinguishing fires and rescuing people from smoke filled cells or areas, putting their own health and safety at risk.

A prison officer is also an unofficial therapist and support worked helping people to get through the day. A prison officer is often a parent figure when someone has had little or no parental input in their lives.

A prison officer performs a service that never stops. The prisons can’t just close. So, when there are health scares, social or civil unrest, even wars - prison officers will continue to go to work and continue to fulfil all these roles.

Please do not try to tell prison officers that they do not perform a front line or necessary service. It is the necessary role that no-one else would willingly perform!

To all my “Forgotten Front Line Service” colleagues... Stay Safe

 

Go raibh mile máith agaibh go léir.

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