Home > Dail Eireann debate. Leader's questions [Drugs in prison].

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Leader's questions [Drugs in prison]. (19 Feb 2008)

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Deputy Eamon Gilmore: This week The Irish Times published figures it had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which show that prisoners have tested positive for drugs in our prisons some 40,000 times over the past three years. That has occurred in a prison population of 3,200. We are told that in some prisons 75% of the tests carried out have proved positive. In 25,000 of the 40,000 cases we are talking about opiates, including heroin. There is clearly a major drugs problem in our prisons but it is not a new problem from the Government's point of view.

In 1997, the programme for Government published by the Taoiseach and his colleagues stated: We will establish a custodial detention centre for convicted drug addicts and remand prisoners who are addicted, with all other prisons to be drug free. Having failed to deliver on this commitment, the Taoiseach and his colleagues had another go at it in the programme for Government in 2002, which stated: “By the end of 2002, we will publish a plan to completely end all heroin use in Irish prisons.” Having failed for a second time, there was another attempt in the 2007 programme for Government, which gave a commitment to “extend measures to make prisons drugs free”. The Government, over an 11-year period, has promised to make prisons drugs free but what it has delivered is prisons where drugs are freely available. By any standards, its drugs-free policy for prisons has been a failure. Will the Taoiseach explain how so many drugs are getting into prisons in the first place? If the State cannot keep drugs out of prisons, what hope is there of keeping drugs out of our communities? If drugs are available in such quantities in what are supposed to be safe places of detention, how on earth will we keep them out of places of entertainment? How does the Taoiseach respond to a sceptical member of the public who must wonder, given the quantity of drugs in prisons and the numbers of prisoners testing positive for drug use, whether there is not some type of unofficial policy of keeping prisoners drugged and perhaps quietened rather than addressing the use of drugs and access to drugs in prisons?

The Taoiseach: In regard to the figures published yesterday, many of the tests referred to were carried out on prisoners who had just been committed and relate to drug use prior to imprisonment. That should be highlighted.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: The prison staff must have been up all night testing prisoners.

The Taoiseach: I will explain. It is only since last October that prison staff have the power to carry out random mandatory drug tests on prisoners. This was not previously available and drug testing was, therefore, primarily targeted at those prisoners suspected of taking drugs or who had a known history of drug misuse. The figures should not be taken as an indicator of drug misuse across the wider prison population.

Deputy Emmet Stagg: The figure is 75%.

The Taoiseach: The figures are not representative of all prisoners.

Some 500 prisoners are on supervised methadone maintenance programmes at any one time. These prisoners are initially tested at least twice weekly and tend to be tested in any case, even if they have been in prison for some time, at least once a week. This amounts to some 30,000 tests. Thus, the figures include the tests that take place on people who are on supervised methadone treatment.

This is not to say there is no problem. I do not wish to downplay it. However, in interpreting the figures, one must allow for these issues. There is a range of other issues involved in this testing that would not be included. There is a drug problem in many of the areas from which prisoners come. It is obvious and inevitable that this will have a knock-on effect in prisons in some cases. We must deal with that problem.

An elaborate set of security measures has been put in place to deal with the situation. The drug testing of prisoners began formally last October and it takes place in four circumstances: where requested by the courts in regard to pending proceedings; where prisoners are in drug-free units, institutions or open centres; where prisoners are participating in methadone maintenance programmes; and for management and operational reasons. These are the four categories under which prisoners are tested.

The Prison Service policy for keeping drugs out of prisons was launched just under two years ago. This involved the establishment of an external monitoring group which meets regularly to monitor implementation of that strategy. It has set out several steps that are required to get to a position where there will be no drugs in prisons, to provide adequate treatment for those addicted to drugs and to ensure that developments in prisons are linked into the community. This policy involves a multifaceted approach to tackling the problems associated with substance abuse. There is a particular focus on the need to assist prisoners who indicate a serious desire to tackle their drug problem. The methadone treatment programme is one such method of assistance.

Specific developments in the area of drug treatment include the provision of 24 addiction counsellors to cover all prisons, the contract for which was awarded to Merchant's Quay last year. Additional nurse officers have been allocated to dedicated drug treatment teams in prisons. A consultant psychiatrist in addiction and registrar of prisons have been appointed to provide counselling sessions and resources have been allocated to improve the quality, co-ordination and availability of drug treatment programmes. The previous position was that little addiction counselling was available in prisons. We were working on the basis that we had security and that there were no drugs in prisons. This was not a sustainable policy given that we all knew there were. We now have a dedicated staff of addiction counsellors, nurses and consultant psychiatrists to assist prisoners and treat those who are genuinely trying to beat the habit.

To eliminate the availability of drugs, we have introduced tough security measures. This is the other side of the issue. We must take the carrot and stick approach. Not everybody wants to accept treatment and partake in rehabilitation. Modern cameras and probe systems are being used to assist in searching for drugs. Security detectors are being used to search persons entering prisons. The security in place is the same as that employed at airports and is thus at a very high level. Previously it involved only random checks.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore
No matter how one interprets the Taoiseach's answer, we are a long way from the drug-free prisons he promised us 11 years ago, promised for a second time six years ago and then promised us again last year. It seems the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and his Department are not on top of the situation. For example, my colleague, Deputy Tuffy, asked a question of the Minister earlier this month about the quantity and value of drugs seized in prisons in the last five years. The Minister replied:

An accurate breakdown of statistics as requested by the Deputy is not available without the manual examination of records going back over a considerable time period.

The Minister further stated that such an examination "would require a disproportionate and inordinate amount of staff time". In other words, the Department does not know the quantity and value of drugs seized in prisons in the last five years.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: It is not much.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: The Taoiseach spoke about everything from nurses and consultant psychiatrists to airport security being introduced in prisons to address the problem. Will he consider allowing prison officers to arrest a person bringing drugs into prison? We have an absurd situation where a prison officer cannot arrest a visitor who is discovered bringing in drugs for a prisoner. Unless gardaí are available or come quickly enough, these people must be released. I suggest this as a start to tackling the problem of large quantities of drugs being brought into prisons on a regular basis.
The Taoiseach
On the last point, I understand there were industrial relations difficulties which have since been ironed out. Prison officers are now co-operating with the new security arrangements. I assume I am referring to the same issue as that raised by the Deputy. If not, I will check that for him.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore
Prison officers do not have the power of arrest. They cannot detain visitors bringing drugs into prisons.

The Taoiseach: I am not sure of the legal consequences of that. There was a difficulty with prisons officers operating the new security arrangements. I understand that was an industrial relations issue which has since been resolved.

Deputy Charles Flanagan: That has nothing to do with it. The Taoiseach is blaming the prison officers, which is unfair.

The Taoiseach: What is the Deputy talking about? Nobody is blaming anyone.

Deputy Charles Flanagan: It is unfair. The Taoiseach should look nearer to home.

The Taoiseach: I mentioned an industrial relations issue that has been ironed out. I gave the list of the preventative issues that are taking place. In fairness, 500 of this country's 3,000 prisoners are on methadone treatment. They are being tested. One cannot move to any of the open-end prisons without having been tested and found to be drug free. Substantial moves are being made in that area.

We also need to focus on the security area, which is the other side of it, as part of the carrot and stick approach. We are providing for mandatory drug testing and studying trends of drug misuse. Prisons are using dogs to do searches on a daily basis. More than 30 people are directly involved in that in our prisons. Prisons are using security screens like those used in airports to check if people coming in and out are carrying drugs. Let us be honest, many of those who visit prisoners use imaginative and hard to detect ways of carrying drugs in and out of prisons. The only way to counteract such behaviour is to use sophisticated technology. Prisons are taking many other measures in respect of staffing and visitors etc. We would have said a few years ago that such methods were not needed in prisons. That is one side of it. The other side is to try to help prisoners to break the habit by giving them a chance to do so while they are in prison. They should be able to avail of the advice of those who can assist them, such as addiction counsellors and consultant psychiatrists. We can use heavy-handed security measures on those who choose not to look for help. Both of those approaches are in operation. I am not saying there is no difficulty. A section of the prison population and a section of those who visit prisoners go to extraordinary lengths to bring drugs into our prisons.

 Vol. 647 No. 3, Leader's Questions, Tuesday, 19 February 2008

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