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Shatter responds to Prison Visiting Committee report

November 23rd, 2011 · 2 Comments · Social Policy

Further to the publication of the Prison Visiting Committee reports 2010 last week, the Minister for Justice and Law Reform answered questions on the matter in the Dáil yesterday. Deputies Clare Daly (Socialist Party) and Jonathan O’Brien (Sinn Fein) raised matters arising during the Topical issues time (a new procedure in the Dáil to raise… well topical issues. It is better than adjournment debates and arises earlier in the day and seems more likely to get a cabinet minister to respond or that is what a Deputy told me a few weeks ago anyway.)

The Minister in his answer addressed matters to do with in cell sanitation but also reported on the complaints made regarding the Dóchas Centre which I referred to over the weekend.

You can read the full content of the debate here. The specific points on Dóchas are extracted below with my emphasis applied. Both the issues of the dignity of prisoners was addressed and issues regarding the release of prisoners. The Minister maintains that prisoners were not strip searched in front of male prison officers.

The Dóchas Centre remains overcrowded and a multi agency plan for the release of prisoners with mental health difficulties and disabilities is needed. Issues regarding whether prisoners with disabilities and mental health difficulties should be imprisoned in Dóchas at all were not addressed in the Ministers reply and I would hope that politicians and others monitoring human rights issues will continue to highlight the many other problems that exist in the centre.

Readers may also be interested in a statement from the Women in Prison Reform Alliance which was released last week on the publication of the Prison Visitor Committee report.

I now turn to the issues with regard to the Dóchas Centre to which the Deputies made reference, both of which occurred in 2010. The House will appreciate that all prisons are subject to search procedures to maintain safety and security and there are specific rules governing the search of prisons and prisoners. Rule 6 of the Prison Rules 2007 provides that prisoners can be searched where the Governor considers, upon reasonable grounds, that such search is necessary for the purposes of ensuring that a prisoner is not in possession of a prohibited article, confiscating a prohibited article and ensuring safe and secure custody and good government of the prison. Searches conducted under this rule may consist of the removal and examination of all the prisoner’s clothing and the examination of the prisoner’s body in as seemly a manner as is consistent with the necessity of discovering any concealed article. A search under this rule must be undertaken by a prison officer of the same gender as the prisoner being searched.

I am informed by the Irish Prison Service that the search undertaken on 9 November 2010 prior to my appointment as Minister and commented on by the visiting committee, was a targeted search for contraband undertaken by staff from the operational support group, OSG. The OSG team comprised of staff drawn from a number of prisons. The function of the male officers was to search areas of the Dóchas Centre where female prisoners were not present including prisoners’ rooms, recreational areas, visiting areas, kitchen, roof-top, workshops, the school and yard.

All prisoners were brought to the reception by Dóchas Centre staff to be searched and placed on the BOSS chair, supervised by a female OSG officer. Two female assistant chief officers attached to the Dóchas Centre supervised the operation while prisoners were coming and going from the area. I have been assured that all other staff in the area were female and attached to the Dóchas Centre. On completion of the search in the reception area, all prisoners were escorted to the gym area where they remained for the duration of the search operation, supervised by Dóchas Centre staff. No further searching of prisoners occurred while they were in the gym. At no time was the BOSS chair located in the gym.

All individual searching of the women prisoners was carried out by female staff. The visiting committee, in its report, states female offenders were required to remove their clothing, including underwear, in the presence of male officers. I have been assured by the Irish Prison Service that this did not happen. The use of the BOSS chair does not necessitate a person being stripped of their clothing. On this occasion, all prisoners placed on the chair were covered in towels to protect their modesty having had their clothing removed at an earlier search stage. The chair includes a flat metal detector which is affixed to the seat. When an inmate sits on the chair it scans the person’s body cavities in a non-intrusive manner and an alarm will sound if contraband is detected.

The search teams confiscated a number of items which appeared to be non-prison issue property for a prisoner in a closed prison. Any such items were recorded and retained and given to the management of the centre on the understanding that management would determine whether such items were allowed in the prison. I understand these included scissors, screwdrivers, pliers, drugs, mobile phones, phone chargers, a syringe, a metal comb with a sharpened end, alcohol and various other contraband items.

Following a meeting with the Inspector of Prisons concerning the Dóchas Centre search operation, all staff have been circulated with guidelines on the use of the BOSS chair. The Governor has supplies of dressing gowns for all future searches and has advised that subsequent searches have not raised the same issues. As Minister, I regard it as unacceptable that towels only and not dressing gowns were made available to prisoners for the search detailed in the 2010 report of the visiting committee. It was also unacceptable that the prisoners were covered by towels only when being scanned by the BOSS chair. This should not have occurred. I am informed that procedures are now in place which respect the dignity of the prisoner and ensure that searches are conducted in a professional manner by the staff involved and I expect these procedures to be fully complied with.

As regards the release of a prisoner from the Dóchas Centre, I have been informed that the director general of the Irish Prison Service had the circumstances surrounding the release investigated. The investigation found there were some procedural failures and these issues were dealt with directly by the director general with the Governor of the Dóchas Centre to ensure that such a situation could not re-occur in future. I regard the manner in which this prisoner was treated as entirely unacceptable.

The report also made a number of recommendations on the incident and a working group has been established to oversee their implementation. This group is due to meet in the near future and consists of the Governor of the Dóchas Centre, the Governor of Mountjoy, the director of operations and representatives from both human resources and operations directorates. Arising from the work of the implementation group, it is envisaged that a comprehensive set of guidelines on releases will be issued to ensure such a situation does not occur in future.


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