Home > Culture and organisation in the Irish Prison Service.

Galvin, Brian (2016) Culture and organisation in the Irish Prison Service. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 56, Winter 2016, pp. 23-24.

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Culture and organisation in the Irish prison service: a road map for the future, a new report completed by the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, and Professor Andrew Coyle, Emeritus Professor of Prison Studies at the University of London, examines all aspects of the administration and governance of the Irish prison system and identifies a number of deficiencies in administration, treatment of prisoners and delivery of services by prison staff.1 The authors are particularly critical of inadequate and misleading reporting, a direct result of the absence of functioning line management structures in many prisons and a factor contributing to consistent breaches of agreed procedures.


The review examines several aspects of the work of the 3,380 staff in the Irish Prison Service (IPS), most of whom are prison officers, and recommends significant changes to management structures, career progression and staff reporting. It recommends substantial changes to the prison system’s governance structures, in particular with regard to the manner in which the IPS reports to the government, the appointment of IPS board members and regional management structures.


Healthcare services

Recommended reforms include appointing a Director of Prison Healthcare Services, the person appointed to be a registered medical practitioner. The report notes that many prisoners have a poor health profile and providing adequate medical and nursing care in prisons presents significant challenges. The work of healthcare staff within the prisons system will be key to progress in this area:   while there has been a steady increase in specialist civilian staff replacing prison officers in recent years, Irish prisons have been much slower than those in the United Kingdom. Nursing managers in the larger prisons lead teams of qualified nurses and there are 111 nurses currently working in the prison service, with 27 nursing places unfilled.


In contrast to countries like Norway and Scotland, which adhere to international standards relating to the provision of healthcare services in prisons, medical services in Irish prisons are not integrated with the general health administration in the community, and prison health policy is not necessarily compatible with national health policy. The authors cite a 2009 Health Service Executive (HSE) report, which recognised that the HSE was peripheral to prison healthcare delivery.2 Recommendations on providing a clear definition of the role of prison nurses have not been implemented and staffing shortages and changes in conditions of employment have contributed to the frustration of nurses, unable to provide the level of nursing care they would wish.


Relationships between management and staff

The report observes that progress from a command structure to a management structure in the prison service lagged far behind that in other areas of public administration. Promotions have traditionally been through the ranks and there has been a blurring of the distinction between staff and management. Many officers spoke of an inflexible culture with an emphasis on ensuring things didn’t go wrong, not on introducing new thinking. Promotion to a higher grade generally operates on a generic basis. This means that it has been possible for someone who has spent all of their career to date in a specialism, with minimal direct contact with prisoners or little management of staff, to be promoted to assistant governor or to one of the grades of chief officer and then be appointed to a position that requires first-line management of both staff and prisoners. A number of recently appointed assistant chief officers reported that they felt unprepared for their new responsibilities and that they found it difficult to gain appropriate respect from some other officers and even from prisoners. The chapter on staff learning and development highlights the disparity between employment practices in the prison system and the wider public service. It appears that PMDS forms are not filled and after their initial training staff learning and development is not monitored.




The focus of this review was on how the current culture of the Irish prison system contributes to or undermines the development of the prison service. Its terms of reference meant that the authors concentrated on organisational issues, the nature of prison work and the experiences and capacity of staff within the IPS. The prisoners themselves are the subject of just one chapter. It is clear that much progress has been made in recent years in improving the conditions in which prisoners live and in identifying and responding to areas of particular concern. The introduction of a new complaints procedure and thorough investigations of deaths are two recent advances in this regard.


Historically, the autonomy granted to individual Irish prisons has meant that, unlike other countries, where a prisoner’s destination is determined largely by an initial classification, prisoners in Ireland are usually allocated to the prison of first committal. The lack of a thorough individual assessment of prisoners militates against attempts to establish internal good order and, in some prisons, contributes the development of gang culture. Gang structures in prisons often mirror external affiliations and can be built around the distribution of drugs, threatening stability in the prison. There does not appear to be a clear operational strategy for dealing with gangs and individual staff members are unable to cope with the violence and intimidation that is part of gang activity. Often it is the victim, not the perpetrator, of this activity who is transferred to another prison or what is called a ‘protective regime’.


Several issues relating to management of prisoners and their rehabilitation were beyond the scope of this review. The authors recommend that a separate review should deal comprehensively with these and should include the following in its terms of reference: 

    • health care including mental health,
    • drug and other substance abuse,
    • education and skills training,
    • the role of specialist staff in the prison environment,
    • a higher priority for pre-release planning, and
    • the parole system and the use of remission of sentence in the rehabilitation of prisoners.


  1. Office of the Inspector of Prisons (2015) Culture and organisation in the Irish prison service: a road map for the future. Dublin: Office of the Inspector of Prisons. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/24803/
  2. Health Service Executive Nursing & Midwifery Planning & Development Unit (2009) Nursing in the Irish Prison Service: working together to meet the healthcare needs of prisoners. Dublin: Health Service Executive. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/12520/
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Report
Drug Type
All substances
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 56, Winter 2016
January 2016
Page Range
pp. 23-24
Health Research Board
Issue 56, Winter 2016

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