Fergal Black, Director of Care & Rehabilitation; Dr Emma Black, Head of Psychology; MInister Charlie Flanagan TD, Michael Donnellan, Director General of the Irish Prison Service . Picture Alf Harvey
A new unit to manage and rehabilitate high-risk and violent prisoners has opened at the prison complex in Portlaoise.
The National Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) is being described as one of the most significant developments in recent years.
Apart from taking a new approach to the management of violent prisoners, there will be additional safety features including the use of body cameras.
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Opening the unit the Laois TD and Minister for Justice & Equality Charlie Flanagan said it was a flagship unit.
"The establishment of the unit marks a significant change in how the Irish Prison Service engages with those prisoners who represent the highest risk of violence to you our staff, to other prisoners and to our communities," he said.
He said a key feature of the management structure of this Unit is the significantly enhanced role of the Psychology Service. As a result, this new Unit will be co-led by Assistant Governor Constantine Cazac and Senior Psychologist Dr Lucy Rowell.
The Irish Prison Service says the unit will house the most challenging prisoners including those with a history of extreme violence towards other prisoners and staff.
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The unit will be capable of housing six violently disruptive prisoners and up to a further four prisoners who will be admitted for the purpose of intensive assessment.
The IPS says this is the first co-led unit of its kind in the Irish Prison Service and represents significant culture change.
The IPS says unit contains a number of physical innovations which will allow prison staff to interact with prisoners without the need to use a technique called “barrier handling” in which the offender is surrounded by staff in personal protective equipment and carry shields for safety.
The design has maximised the Prison Service's ability to have a drug free environment. This s particularly important with this prisoner cohort, given the possibility of drug-induced psychosis and resultant violent behaviour.
The Unit has multiple areas where the prisoner may be out-of-cell, yet contained within distinct areas for therapeutic or educational activity, exercise or having visits (personal or legal).
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Additional safety features being trialled on the Unit include the use of concealed batons as standard issue for officers working on the unit. This decision is specific to this location and purpose and is in response to a comprehensive risk assessment conducted.
In addition, the Irish Prison Service is trialling on a pilot basis, the use of individual body-worn cameras on the Unit. Such cameras are mandatory for officers deployed to the Unit.
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Speech by Charles Flanagan TD, Minister for Justice and Equality, Irish Prison Service Violence Reduction Unit, Midlands Prison, Friday, November 9
I am delighted to join you today and I want to thank the Director-General, Michael Donnellan, for inviting me to visit the new National Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) and to meet with those of you who will manage and operate it.
Like many of you I have monitored the progress of this flagship project and I am delighted that after much work in planning, construction and the training of staff, we are now in a position to open. This is one of the most significant developments to occur within the Prison Service in many years.
I recognise that you have volunteered to transfer to work on this Unit. I wish also to recognise your dedication and commitment to the Irish Prison Service, to your colleagues and to the public who as a result of your work will live in safer communities. You have undergone extensive training to prepare you for your role on this Unit and your work is greatly valued and appreciated by me and my colleagues in Government.
The establishment of the Unit marks a significant change in how the Irish Prison Service engages with those prisoners who represent the highest risk of violence to you our staff, to other prisoners and to our communities. Its operation of the unit is grounded in best international practice and has due regard for our obligations under European Human Rights Law.
The new approach aims to meet each prisoner’s complex needs, through improving their psychological health, their wellbeing, and their behaviour in a centre of excellence operated by you our highly motivated, highly trained and highly competent staff.
This is first and foremost a rehabilitative unit, where prisoners will benefit from a purposeful regime and are supported to address their challenging behaviour with a clear focus and emphasis on progression and re-integration.
While operational and security factors will always be very important in a prison environment, a key feature of the management structure of this Unit is the significantly enhanced role of the Psychology Service. As a result, this new Unit will be co-led by Assistant Governor Constantine Cazac and Senior Psychologist Dr Lucy Rowell with equal importance placed on both operational and psychological factors. This new approach is intrinsic to the ethos of the Unit and the basis for the decision making process.
All prisoners located here will be managed in accordance with an individual Case Management Plan. This plan will be continuously updated through intensive structured engagement and developed in a multi-disciplinary environment.
Prisoners will be provided with the opportunity to develop non-violent coping strategies through careful selection, security, and intervention strategies. They will be provided with direction, clarity, transparency and support so that they take full responsibility for their actions.
The key component in how a prisoner progresses from initial containment to rehabilitation is the engagement and interaction they will have with you the staff, with the services in general and with their assigned Personal Officer in particular. Staff at all levels are encouraged and expected to develop a personal approach with the prisoners on the unit.
Working on the unit will be a challenging experience for you all, notwithstanding the training, support and supervision that also marks this Unit out as unique. However, I expect that this experience will also be highly rewarding and I would like to thank you again for stepping forward, for volunteering to work in this new Unit.
Breaking the cycle of offending is critical to reducing crime and protecting the public I have acknowledged on many occasions the ongoing reforms introduced by the Irish Prison Service especially rehabilitative initiatives designed to protect the public and make Irish society safer. I am confident that as a national centre of excellence, with expert and highly motivated, trained staff, this new Unit will prove to be a key resource for the organisation from the outset.
I would like to wish you every success as you work on our behalf to make our society and communities safer.