I want to thank you, Mr. President, and the members of the Prison Officers Association, for this opportunity to address your 60th Annual Conference.

Since my appointment as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in June 2002, I have been committed to radically reforming and modernising the prison system. A lot of progress has been made but clearly more needs to be done.

The way criminal gangs are operating has changed and we have to respond vigorously to address the new threats posed both outside and within the prison system. If the Irish Prison Service is to fulfil its role and provide a safe and secure prison environment we need to maintain the pace of significant organisational change; we need to provide modern secure prison buildings; and we need to place a strong emphasis on security.

Impressive progress has already been made as regards organisational change. The scourge of overtime has gone and is no longer draining away resources from priority areas. Following on from that, we have been able to allocate extra resources to ensuring that our prison buildings meet modern standards and provide a safe and secure environment for all those within. Capital projects now launched and underway will do away with 19th Century buildings and conditions and provide the Irish Prison Service with a working and operational environment appropriate to the 21st Century.

However before expanding on our successes in these areas I want to turn to a question of major concern - security.



 

Ongoing Security Enhancement in Prisons

Hand in hand with organisational change has been a concerted effort to improve the safety and security of staff and prisoners. This issue is a matter of priority and ongoing concern to me. We can never be complacent in relation to this issue. If anyone needs to be reminded of the need to be vigilant in this area, one only has to point to the tragic death of Gary Douch in Mountjoy Prison last year. I view this shocking incident with great regret and wish to take this opportunity once again to apologise and express my deepest sympathy to his mother and family. It is not something which should have happened and it is incumbent on all to learn lessons from this shocking event with a view to ensuring that an incident such as this does not happen again.

In that regard, you will be aware of the Government's recent decision to appoint Ms Grainne McMorrow, an experienced senior counsel with a background in mental health and criminal law and experience of both the United Kingdom and Irish systems, to be the sole member of a Commission of Investigation into the matter. We need this commission of investigation to establish all of the facts surrounding the death. We need to learn the measures that must be taken to prevent a similar tragedy happening again. Above all, we need to have a decent system for those who are suffering from psychiatric illness in our prison system to ensure they are properly dealt with and not transferred from one institution to another as nuisances but are treated in a way which is appropriate to their dignity and to the safety of other prisoners.

The events of recent days have highlighted an increasing problem facing the Prison Service. This concerns the activities of criminal elements, while in prison, making illegal contact with the outside world. The challenge to the Prison Service is to prevent these criminals from issuing instructions relating to illegal activity from the comfort of their prison cells or from exerting influence over other prisoners. I do not doubt that this is a challenging task, but it is a challenge that must be faced head-on not just by individual prison officers, but by the entire organisation. I can assure you that I am fully committed to implementing all appropriate measures to prevent illegal activity by these gangs and ensure that the contact that prisoners have with the outside world is properly controlled and monitored. I have already made the necessary legislative changes to ensure that such illegal activity is punishable with severe penalties.

Drugs and mobile phones are the currency used by gang leaders within the prison system to exert power and control over other prisoners and to maintain their control outside the prison as well. The availability of drugs and phones poses a threat to your members and the security of the prison. Since taking office I have constantly hammered home the message that this state of affairs cannot be tolerated. Every step must be taken to tackle this problem and I need the help and commitment of your members to succeed.

Special security netting has already been introduced in our existing prisons to stop illicit material being simply thrown over prison walls. All new prisons are to be built with a cordon sanitaire to stop that channel of access completely. The new prison rules which I will be signing shortly will provide a statutory basis for mandatory drug testing and screened visits. It will now be a specific offence to attempt to smuggle illegal drugs into a prison institution. Dog units are being used to sniff out drugs.

Ireland, of course, is not the only country that has a problem with prisoners using mobile phones. At my instigation, and with my ongoing encouragement, the Irish Prison Service has examined various technological options used abroad to block mobile phone signals within the perimeter of a prison. One such system is to be introduced initially in the Midlands prison and will be rapidly extended to all prisons.

A number of modern search cameras and probe systems have been acquired to assist in searching previously difficult areas such as hollow bed legs, drains or under floorboards. Initial reports indicate that these new technologies will be a valuable asset contributing to the significant number of seizures - over 600 mobile phones so far this year. Plans are well advanced for the segregation of serious drug and criminal gang members on remand in a special area of Cloverhill Prison.

These initiatives, in conjunction with others, will minimise the opportunities of gang members to direct their operations and exert influence over other persons. I am also conscious that ruthless criminals can threaten and intimidate vulnerable prison officers. These measures should also help ensure a safer working environment for prison officers. However on their own they are not enough and more needs to be done.

A drug free prison system is one of my stated commitments. This system involves the treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners, introducing mandatory drug testing of prisoners and the elimination of the supply of drugs. I would like to take this opportunity to commend staff for their co-operation in the battle against the scourge of drugs within the prison system. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention the issue of trafficking by a small minority of staff. In recent months, a small number of staff has been arrested on suspicion of delivering contraband to prisoners, either under duress or voluntarily. Trafficking of contraband is something that cannot and will not be tolerated. The overwhelming majority of prison officers are professional, dedicated, honest and hard working officers and are badly let down by those who traffic in contraband within the prison system. It is incumbent on the Irish Prison Service to stand firm against those who seek to jeopardise both the good reputation of law abiding officers and indeed the safety and security of both staff and prisoners alike.

Ensuring a safe working environment for prison staff is, I am sure you will all agree, of fundamental importance and I believe that the roll out of the new Drugs Policy - 'Keeping Drugs Out of Prison', will play an important part in that.

 

Organisational Change

In relation to change, huge progress has been achieved. A programme of agreed organisational change, covering every facet of the Service, has been rolled out and continues to be rolled out as I speak. When the Agreement is fully bedded in, I believe it will bring about a much improved Service which will benefit management, staff and prisoners alike.

The Agreement has eliminated the shackle of overtime while guaranteeing predictable levels of income for staff. Already we are into the second year of operation of the new agreed arrangements and this could not have been achieved without the partnership approach which has been so successfully adopted.

We have successfully established a dedicated Prison Service Escort Corps within the Service. That Escort Corps is now operating at full capacity and is delivering an efficient and effective service.

Another important aspect of the Agreement that has been successfully rolled out is the introduction of a new Recruit Prison Officer Grade. In that context, we have moved further along the road of professionalising the Service in that the bar has been raised in terms of qualifications for entry to the Service. Leaving certificate level or equivalent is now a requirement for entry to the Service. The Agreement provides that training for recruits will follow a programme and syllabus leading to the award of a National Certificate level qualification.

One of the key reasons for introducing new working arrangements under the agreed Proposal for Organisational Change was the enhancement of prisoner regimes, particularly in terms of improving the availability of work training, education and in-reach programmes, and making the most of out-of-cell time for prisoners. Improved regimes for prisoners as a consequence of the changes brought about by the Agreement are now being realised. More predictable costs going forward into the future has given us the opportunity to improve the Service for everyone involved in it.

 

Occupancy Levels

As regards occupancy levels in general throughout the prison system, the total number of prisoners in custody on 25 April, 2007 was 3,364 compared with a bed capacity of 3,486. This represents an occupancy level of 96%. There is no need for widespread use of early release simply to ease pressure of numbers within the system. This is in stark contrast to the situation which prevailed in the mid - 1990's when the scandal of the "revolving door" was at its height.

To illustrate this point I can advise that 142 persons were on temporary release on 26 April, 2007. This is just 4% of the prisoner population and this relatively small number is due in large measure to the expansion in our prison accommodation over the last number of years. Back in 1996 there was an unacceptable level of temporary release when we had 552 persons free on 9 December of that year, about 20% of the then prison population.

On 1 September, 2006 I directed that Wheatfield and Midlands Prisons operate as committal prisons for male prisoners sentenced by courts in designated counties. As a result, Mountjoy's committal responsibility was reduced to Dublin City and County. Following this directive, the number of new committals to Mountjoy reduced significantly. In the first six months of operation, thirty percent of new committals to the three prisons were to Wheatfield and Midlands prisons and this percentage is likely to increase further over time.

Nevertheless, I do accept that a number of our prisons are in a fairly poor state, particularly Mountjoy and Cork Prisons. This is being remedied by constructing new facilities in Dublin and Cork. The new facilities will, in addition, offer significant improvements in the areas of work training, education and medical services as well as providing predominantly single cell accommodation with in-cell sanitation facilities. These are major undertakings involving replacement of close to 40% of the entire prison estate and in the last 5 years investment of over 280m Euro has been committed to providing this 21st century prison estate.

 

Thornton Hall Prison PPP Project

The case for closing Mountjoy Prison has been well documented and I don't propose to go over those issues again. As you know the Prison Service has purchased land at Thornton, north County Dublin as the site for the proposed new prison complex to replace the outdated facilities at Mountjoy Prison.

The new campus at Thornton will have a total capacity of approximately 1,400 spaces including an assessment centre, high, medium and lower security facilities as well as step down facilities. The campus design is regime orientated and will allow for the development of progressive rehabilitative programmes, the introduction of enhanced educational and work training facilities and the introduction of single person cells with in cell sanitation to end the inhumane practice of slopping out. In addition, the new prison complex will also be constructed with an extensive cordon sanitaire to prevent drugs and other items being thrown over the wall.

A consortium was recently selected as the preferred bidder to design, build, maintain and finance the new prison facilities. The Government have given their approval for the project to proceed to the contract phase which will be signed subject to successful conclusion of detailed negotiations. Work on the proposed new prison is expected to commence towards the end of this year with completion expected in 2010.

 

Munster Region Prison

I am also pleased to announce that the Government has approved in principle my proposal that a new prison for the Munster area be built on a site at Kilworth, County Cork. The site being provided by the Department of Defence will allow the development of a modern prison facility to replace the outdated facilities at Cork Prison. While the project has not yet advanced to detail design stage, it is intended that the capacity of the new prison would be in the region of about 450 prisoners. The new prison will enable the Service to provide the range of rehabilitation programmes for offenders befitting a modern prison service.

In addition to these major plans, a number of other significant capital projects have also been advanced across the prison estate.

 

Portlaoise Prison

The refurbishment of Portlaoise Prison is proceeding apace. Phase 1 of the programme, which was completed in 2004, saw the provision of a new gatelock, visitors and administration building. Construction work on a new cellular block is well advanced and is expected to be completed in October. The new block which is part of the modernisation programme at the Prison will provide accommodation for 138 offenders and will also provide a prisoner reception area, medical suite, education and recreation facilities. A video conference facility is also being provided.

 

Wheatfield Prison

A number of major capital projects have been undertaken at Wheatfield Prison in recent years. These include a new laundry facility and more prisoner workshops which will provide training for up to 80 prisoners. Security at the prison has also been enhanced with the provision of a new state of the art Control Room using digital CCTV technology.

Preliminary site works to facilitate the construction of a new accommodation block are almost completed. The new block will provide accommodation for 144 prisoners. Tenders for the construction of the new block have been evaluated and I expect that a contract for the new building will be signed in the coming weeks.

 

Limerick Prison

A programme of modernisation work at Limerick Prison has been underway now for a number of years. Work done to date includes the completion of a new accommodation block for up 100 prisoners as well as new administration facilities, new gatelock and visitors facilities. A new services block, which is at fit-out stage will provide enhanced educational facilities, recreation and medical facilities. Planning for the final phase of development work at the prison is now underway.

 

Castlerea Prison

Work on the provision of new purpose built accommodation for remand prisoners is currently underway at Castlerea Prison and is scheduled for completion early next year. The new unit will provide accommodation for over 60 prisoners. Two additional houses capable of accommodating 12 prisoners is well advanced and will be commissioned shortly.

 

Shelton Abbey Open Centre

Construction work on the provision of a new 44 bedroom accommodation is almost completed. Planning for the next phase of the development, the provision of a new block to accommodate up to 46 offenders is already underway.

 

Loughan House

A new 60 bedroom accommodation unit at Loughan House Open Centre is almost completed and fit-out work is due to get underway shortly. Work on a new education facility at Loughan House is also well advanced and is expected to be completed by September 2007.

 

Integrated Sentence Management

I have previously said that we cannot be expected to deliver a twenty first century correctional system in prison buildings that are centuries old. And I have during my time as Minister striven to improve that infrastructure with our extensive building and refurbishment programme.

Just as important, however, are the procedures and working practices with which the Prison Service carries out its work. The Prisons Act 2007, most of which I commenced this week, is an important measure in modernising and ensuring cost-effectiveness in our prison system. Amongst many other issues, it puts the office of the Inspector of Prisons on a statutory footing. You will be glad to know that it is my intention to re-appoint Mr. Justice Kinlen as the Inspector of Prisons. He will continue his important work with legislative backing and I want to thank him for the work he has already done.

I will shortly be bringing into force the new Prison Rules which have not been updated since 1947. These new Rules will provide an up-to-date legal framework within which the work of running a prison in a modern context can take place. The new Rules will also support you, who are in the front line, in carrying out your important work.

Also central to my vision for a twenty first century prison system is the introduction of Integrated Sentence Management (ISM), a new system for the management of each prisoner's sentence. This will involve not just a new orientation in the delivery of services to prisoners, but also a new emphasis on prisoners taking greater personal responsibility for their own development through active engagement with both specialist and non-specialist services in the prisons. A prisoner-centred, multidisciplinary approach to working with prisoners with provision for initial assessment, goal setting and periodic review to measure progress, will be created. Piloting of this process is already ongoing in two prisons and will soon be extended to other prisons.

The management of offenders requires a carefully co-ordinated response, sustained over time, with clear goals and accountabilities in place for service delivery. Central to the development of ISM will be the role of the Prison Officer. You are the people who interact with the prisoner every day. The potential of the Prison Officer to model behaviours that we would wish prisoners to copy is strong. Such qualities I would see as hard work, responsibility, co-operation and collegiality, and not least understanding and compassion. The Prison Officer has more influence over the behaviour of prisoners than anyone else, and has a major contribution to make to helping achieve the rehabilitation of offenders and I commend you for your ongoing work in this regard.

 

Conclusion

We have in the past had our differences, however, I do believe that at some stage in the future if prison officers look back on my tenure as Minister they will see that I have tried to change the system for the good of all: - staff, prisoners and at the end of the day, for society as a whole.

The Prison Service is in the middle of a journey of transition; a change process that will see it move into the 21st century equipped to deal with all the challenges that modern society will throw at it. I have the greatest of respect for prison staff and management. You perform a difficult job on behalf of the State and you perform it well, coping with the unique challenges that the job entails.

I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge your contribution to the improvements that are evident in the Irish Prison Service and to wish you all well for the future.

3 May 2007