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Operational Review of Assaults on Prison Staff by Prisoners

  |   General Indemnity Scheme (GIS)
The SCA Review Group with Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

The SCA Review Group with Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

In 2015, following a number of violent physical assaults on Irish Prison Service staff by prisoners, the Deputy Director of the State Claims Agency (SCA) confirmed to the Director General of the IPS that the SCA would conduct a “Review of Assaults on Operational Prison Staff by Prisoners”. The aim of the Review was to determine whether the recent assaults were unusual events or an indication of a new culture of violence in the prisons, particularly aimed against staff. The SCA also wished to determine the root cause of such incidents, to comment on the potential for future reoccurrence and to make recommendations for improvement.

IPS Management welcomed and embraced the Review. Both staff and management understand that operational prison staff are the critical component in the successful management of prisoners and their behaviours and that this is the key to managing the associated risk. There is genuine concern among staff for their safety and that of their colleagues but, interestingly, their views on possible risk controls were that a combined approach was necessary i.e. not just to focus on weapons and protective equipment for operational prison staff but also to address prisoner issues such as mental health, risk assessment, etc.

From left to right: Mr. Martin Smyth [Director of Operations, IPS], Mr. Ciarán Breen [Director, SCA], Mr. Martin O’Neill [Governor 1 West Dublin Campus, IPS], Ms. Gemma D’Arcy [Senior Enterprise Risk Manager, SCA], Mr. Pat Kirwan [Deputy Director, Executive Head of Business, Risk and Operations, SCA], Ms. Frances Fitzgerald [Tánaiste, Minister for Justice and Equality], Mr. Tom O’Keefe [Enterprise Risk Manager, SCA], Ms. Ciara Daly [Enterprise Risk Manager, SCA], Mr. Michael Donnellan [Director General, IPS], Mr. John McDermott [Press Officer, IPS], Mr. Seamus Sisk [Head of Health and Safety and Compliance, IPS].

There is some evidence to suggest that the number of assaults is increasing but this evidence is not compelling. However, direct physical assaults on operational prison staff are an important and significant issue; almost 3 in every 100 operational prison staff were directly physically assaulted in 2015. In contrast, the ratio of these assaults to the numbers of prisoners in the system is very low – assaults are carried out by a relatively small number of prisoners with, in the main, challenging behaviours and/or mental health problems.

Managing the risk of assaults on operational prison staff by prisoners is a multifaceted and complex issue.

Managing the risk of the potential assaults on prison staff by prisoners is a multifaceted and complex issue. Hazards involving people and the human disposition are ever changing and must be dealt with systematically and strategically. The Review’s main findings and recommendations include:

  • Operational Duties – Conflict Management: The IPS should refocus its emphasis on the management of prisoner behaviours using conflict resolution techniques to deescalate situations that could lead to physical violence through further training and selection of staff.
  • Operational Duties – Escorts: The IPS should review the use of escorts and explore opportunities to reduce the frequency of prisoners leaving prisons for court appearances and hospital visits – through greater use of video links with courts and improved on-site medical facilities within prisons.
  • Deterrent and Protective Equipment and Clothing: The current practice of prison staff not carrying batons as standard should continue. However, the review did make recommendations that batons should be carried as standard outside prisons while on escort. In addition, it was recommended that the IPS explore the use of incapacitant spray (pepper spray) to be used in a controlled manner for certain specific situations. The Review Group also does not recommend the routine wearing of body armour on the landing or within the perimeter of the prison but that it should be available for other activities subject to a needs’ analysis.
  • Prisoner Risk Assessment: The IPS should improve and standardise the approach of prisoner risk assessment to ensure that all personal information and security information, gathered in respect of prisoners, is available when making critical operations decisions.
  • Prisoner health and wellbeing:  As far as possible, extend existing arrangements to take prisoners with serious mental health issues out of the prison system for care in more appropriate locations.
  • Deterrent Measures: The IPS needs to develop a more transparent and graded deterrent and disciplinarily procedure (based on severity of breach) to act as a deterrent against assaults on operational staff.

Mr. Ciarán Breen [Director, SCA] and Ms. Frances Fitzgerald [Tánaiste, Minister for Justice and Equality].

The Review Group advised that all of the recommendations throughout the report are not to be seen as individual standalone actions but as a holistic remediation process. If all recommendations are implemented effectively, it is hoped that it will not only reduce the number of assault incidents on staff but it will improve the overall performance on the day to day running of the Irish Prison Service.

On the 24th of November 2016 the Review Group presented the report to the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality. The Review findings and recommendations were accepted and adopted in full. The Director of the IPS was requested by the Tánaiste to prepare an implementation plan for the recommendations for early in 2017.

This Review demonstrated that the management of this risk needs to be approached at a number of levels and holistically.

While this report is very specific to the IPS, it is important to note that the findings and recommendations of this Review have wider implications for other Delegated State Authorities as the whole issue of managing challenging behaviours is not unique to the IPS and is also evident in the Healthcare sector, in An Garda Síochána, Detention Schools, the Education sector to mention a few. We therefore encourage that the wider learnings are considered by other clients within the State sector. Shared learnings are an important element of risk management and continuous improvement. The Review can be found at

Article by: Gemma D’Arcy,
Senior Enterprise Risk Manager