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[Oireachtas] Topical issue debate – organised crime. (26 Apr 2012)

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Deputy Willie O’Dea: The Minister of State will be aware that the Prison Officers Association, whose annual conference is taking place at the moment, has drawn attention to the difficulties caused by the activities of gangland figures in prison where they are replicating many of the activities in which they have been involved on the outside. This has very real consequences for the compliant prison population who are living in a climate of fear and for the victims of crime on the outside in the following way. I know of cases of compliant prisoners being compelled by threats to bring in drugs, weaponry and mobile phones. I am aware of cases where following threats against themselves and their families on the outside, they have been forced to secret some of these materials in their cells. 

This climate of fear and intimidation is enabling people to be involved in crime while still in prison. They are enabled, particularly by the availability of mobile phones, to be able organise activities outside while they are supposed to be in prison. I know of cases where very serious crimes were committed up to and including murder, which were largely organised within prison walls.
 
Since many of these gangs are feuding with each other, segregation is now necessary in most prisons. At the moment nearly 400 prisoners are locked up for periods of up to 23 hours a day. More than 900 prisoners are in protective custody. Those numbers represent an enormous proportion of the prison population as a whole - possibly the highest in the world. These people need such special treatment because of the gangland situation inside the prison walls.
 
This has created enormous logistical problems for the prison staff. There is no single way of dealing with it; every chief officer is left to his or her own devices. It is an ad hoc system. As the representative of the Prison Officers’ Association said at its recent conference, this is both unsafe and unfair.
 
I am not raising this to gain political points. I mention it on behalf of families of prisoners who have come to me to say their family member, who simply wants to serve out his sentence, is being subjected to a campaign of intimidation, threats and terror and is living in daily fear of violent physical assault. I am also raising the issue on behalf of a number of prison officers, who tell me it is impossible in the present overcrowded conditions to organise the prisons properly. I am fully aware the current Minister is not the first who has presided over this situation, but due to the successes of the Garda, for which I congratulate it, there are now many more gangland figures behind prison walls, so the problem has grown in scale. I am aware of the statement by the representative of the Irish Prison Service today, but I must be conscious of what prison officers - the people who are trying to use the system on the ground - are saying, and I must be particularly conscious of what the families of prisoners are saying. I am aware of the Government’s financial difficulties with regard to the provision of extra prison space and so on, but I ask the Minister of State to convey to her colleague that something needs to be done to alleviate those concerns.
 
Deputy Kathleen Lynch: I am conscious that I may not have time to read out the whole reply, but I agree this is an important issue and I thank the Deputy for raising it.
 
I am here on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, who unfortunately cannot be present, as he is attending a meeting of the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council in Luxembourg where his presence is required. I thank Deputy O’Dea for raising this matter and for the opportunity to speak on this important issue, which has been a topic of discussion already today. I can assure the Deputy that tackling serious and organised crime and bringing to justice those involved is a key priority for the Government. The implementation of specific operational measures to deal with criminal gangs and their activities is a matter for the Garda Commissioner. In this context, the Commissioner has stressed on many occasions that the necessary resources have been made available and will continue to be made available. The Minister has also made it clear to the Garda Commissioner that he is open to making additional changes to the law which the Garda believes would be helpful in tackling the activities of organised criminals.
 
The House will appreciate that the growth of organised criminal gangs outside prison has obvious consequences within the prison system itself. The manner in which these groups operate on the outside is now being mirrored on the inside. Rivalries and feuds which develop on the outside continue inside prison. Prison managements must ensure the various factions are kept apart and, as far as possible, that gang members do not have influence over other prisoners or criminal activities outside the prisons. Having attended the annual conference of the Prison Officers’ Association earlier today, I am all too aware of the difficulties this causes for prison management and staff on a daily basis, as I heard it at first hand this morning. I listened carefully to what was said and heard about what can unfortunately happen, and I understand the difficulties for everyone involved. I also appreciate the efforts made by prison management and staff to deal with this issue on a daily basis. We all know and appreciate that theirs is a difficult job, and we must do all we can to support them. I am informed by the Minister for Justice and Equality that the management and staff of our prisons do an excellent job in this regard and act according to the intelligence and information acquired through the monitoring process. This may involve keeping different prisoners or groups of prisoners separate, moving prisoners from one location in the prison to another, or transferring them to another prison. All of this is part and parcel of the day-to-day business of running a prison system.
 
The problems associated with gangs are not unique to Ireland; prisons everywhere must deal with this issue every day. Unfortunately, Ireland is no different from anywhere else, but I assure the House that the Irish Prison Service has long been taking considerable steps to tackle and manage this issue, and has built up considerable experience in this regard. The House can be also assured that the director general of the Irish Prison Service will take whatever steps are necessary to deal with any problems that may arise. Much has been done already and much continues to be done.
 
A number of initiatives have been introduced with a view to preventing identified gang leaders from conducting criminal activities while in custody, and to prevent them from exerting inappropriate influence over others. The security initiatives undertaken by the operational security group, OSG, within the Irish Prison Service have made it more difficult for prisoners to engage in illegal activities while in prison. These initiatives include the introduction of passive and active drug detection dogs and the installation of airport-style security, including scanners and X-ray machines. The core functions of this group include gathering and collating intelligence information regarding the behaviour of criminal gang members in custody, carrying out intelligence-led searches and preventing the flow of contraband, including mobile phones, into prisons.
 
In addition, there is regular contact between the Irish Prison Service and the Garda Síochána to discuss security issues, including the operation of criminal gangs. Gardaí are also provided with reports detailing the release dates of this category of prisoner. Furthermore, the risk management of offenders group within the Irish Prison Service, which is comprised of the governors of all closed prisons and the governor of the OSG, meet on a regular basis to share intelligence and to decide in a strategic and collaborative fashion on the placement of leading gang members across the prison estate, having regard to the associated protection issues. An unfortunate by-product of the gang culture in prisons is the increasing number of prisoners who need to be put on protection. However, it is also an indication of the steps taken to ensure prisoners are kept safe as well as secure within the system.
 
I thank the Deputy for providing me with an opportunity to address the House on this issue. On behalf of the Minister, I assure him that every effort will continue to be made to deal with this issue in our prisons. I can also assure him that the management and staff of the Irish Prison Service will have the full support of the Minister in taking all necessary steps to ensure this is done.
 
Deputy Willie O’Dea: I thank the Minister of State for her reply, and I understand why the Minister for Justice and Equality cannot be here. While I appreciate the work being done by prison staff and the experience they have built up, the Minister will understand that at the moment we are dealing with a particularly volatile situation. The prisons are crammed. I can understand the reason for that; I do not make any political point about it. For whatever reason, the prisons are full to bursting. In addition, there are now record numbers of gang members behind bars, and in Mountjoy Prison, one in every five prisoners is segregated or under some sort of protection, including 23-hour lock-up. Putting together those three factors, we have a combustible situation.
 
The Prison Officers’ Association has recommended that an independent review be carried out to determine whether a cohesive approach can be taken. As the Minister of State is aware, the problem is being dealt with on an ad hoc basis; it is down to every prison officer or prison chief to handle each situation as he or she sees fit. I appreciate that there must be a certain amount of flexibility, but will the Government consider accepting the recommendation of the Prison Officers’ Association that an independent review be carried out to bring some cohesion to the management of these problems within the prisons?
 
Deputy Kathleen Lynch: There is a cohesive project in place which brings all prison governors together, and they meet regularly with the people who are charged with the security and management of the service. These prison officers are front-line staff; we can never dismiss what they tell us, and we will always have to take account of it. During my address today to the Prison Officers’ Association, I announced that a new prison is to be built in Cork. Cork Prison, as people know, is grossly overcrowded. It is hoped the new prison will be up and running within the next two years. That will happen. There will be accommodation not only for the people who are already in that prison but also for additional numbers. In addition, the capital building programme in the area of justice has received significant additional moneys this year. As long as we are successful in incarcerating gangs, gang members and their leaders, we will have this problem. I accept what the POA has said and what the Deputy stated in regard to how we manage this situation. We must keep a very close eye on it. I agreed with the president of the POA today that I would convey to the Minister, Deputy Shatter, three of the association’s demands, including for an ombudsman and for an independent monitor to examine how action might be better co-ordinated. I will do so.
 
Topical Issue Debate – Organised Crime
Vol. 763 No. 1
Thursday, 26 April 2012
Item Type:Dail Debates
Source:Oireachtas
Date:26 April 2012
EndNote:View
Subjects:MM-MO Crime and law > Crime and violence
VA Geographic area > Europe > Ireland
MM-MO Crime and law > Crime prevention
MM-MO Crime and law > Crime > Substance related crime
MM-MO Crime and law > Organised crime

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