Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

27: Violence in Irish Prisons (2019)

Standard 27:

Prisoners and everyone else within the prison system feels safe and protected from violence in the prison environment.


All prisoners and everyone in the penal system should feel safe and protected from harm, abuse and violence.[473] A number of factors help prevent violence occurring in prisons. These include: providing safe custody limits; access to single-cell accommodation; creation of positive and humane prison conditions whereby prisoners have access to regular forms of communication with their families; and a high level of out-of-cell time with access to a wide and varied regime and effective prison management.

Current context:

In 2018, 110 assaults on staff by prisoners were recorded, while 418 assaults on prisoners by prisoners were recorded.[474] Based on information revealed under the Freedom of Information Act, it was also reported that staff allegedly assaulted prisoners 37 times in 2018.[475]

In November 2018, the National Violence Reduction Unit opened in Midlands Prison. The National Violence Reduction Unit is targeted at a small number of prisoners who are engaged in repeated serious violence. The approach of the unit is to meet each prisoner’s complex needs through improving their psychological health. Its focus is on progression.[476],[477]

Research is currently being conducted on the management of this small cohort of prisoners under the ‘violent and disruptive prisoner’ (VDP) policy, which has been in place since 2014.[478] This study examines the previous approach of the management of violent prisoners under the VDP policy, whereby practice was operationally driven, against the new approach, which is more psychologically informed, and aimed at positively intervening to reduce violent behaviour. Previous practice under the VDP policy was defined by the following three characteristics.

  1. The small cohorts of prisoners were managed with increased security including the use of barrier handling. This involved a control and restraint team and personal protection equipment. In contrast, the new approach is co-led by an operational governor and senior psychologist who jointly make decisions. Prison staff are trained in an approach grounded in psychological knowledge and skill. Barrier handling has been eliminated as standard practice.
  2. Prisoners previously only had access to basic features of the prison regime such as phone calls and visits. Access and engagement with services was restricted and, if it happened, it only occurred on a one-on-one basis. By comparison, the new unit provides an intensive psychological assessment and a more purposeful regime provided through increased use of facilities and services.
  3. Prisoners were not permitted to associate with other prisoners and engagement with staff was minimal. By contrast, the new approach facilitates prisoners to interact with each other as they progress through the unit. Positive staff–prisoner engagement is a core feature, whether through structured interventions by a psychologist or informal social interactions.

Indicators for Standard:

Indicators for Standard 27

Indicator S27.1: The number of violent incidents across the prison estate.[479]

There has been a 5.8% increase in recorded prisoner-on-staff assaults from 2017 to 2018 figures.

Prisoner-on-staff assaults:
Prison Prison capacity Assaults, 2017 Assaults, 2018
Arbour Hill 138 0 0
Castlerea 340 13 12
Cloverhill 431 8 11
Cork 296 9 15
Dóchas Centre 105 14 8
Limerick 238 8 8
Loughan House 140 0 0
Midlands 845 15 13
Mountjoy (male) 755 18 24
Portlaoise 291 3 4
Shelton Abbey 115 0 0
Wheatfield 550 10 5
PSEC N/A 6 9
OSG N/A 0 1
Total 104 110
Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults by prison, 2017 and 2018
Prison Prison capacity 2017 2018
Arbour Hill 138 0 1
Castlerea 340 79 76
Cloverhill 431 42 54
Cork 296 44 42
Dóchas 105 33 28
Limerick 238 18 28
Loughan House 140 0 0
Midlands 845 45 44
Mountjoy 755 113 110
Portlaoise 291 14 0
Shelton Abbey 115 0 3
Wheatfield 550 24 20
PSEC N/A 3 12
Total 417 418

Indicator S27.2: The number of sexual violence incidents across the prison estate.

This information has not been made available.[480]

Indicator S27.3: The number of prisoners held in Close Supervision Cells and duration of time spent in these cells.

This information has not been made available.[481]

Indicator S27.4: The establishment of a therapy-focused unit for prisoners who are violent and disruptive.

The National Violence Reduction Unit has been open since November 2018.


IPRT welcomes that the IPS is collating data on prisoner-on-staff assaults and prisoner-on-prisoner assaults. It is also interesting to see the number of alleged staff on prisoner assaults reported under an FOI request. Only through yearly publication of data, alongside the diligent recording of incidents, can a true assessment be made of patterns of violence in the prison system.

The figures provided in the tables above do not provide detail on the number of individuals involved in assaults, which may reflect a small number of prisoners. Collating these data and examining circumstances around incidents may help further identify key factors towards reducing violence; for example, the State Claims Agency review found that assaults were carried out by a small number of prisoners who mostly presented with challenging behaviours and/or mental health problems.[482]

Status of Standard 27: Progress

Progressive Practice:

Addressing violence through a public health approach, Scotland

Scotland adopts a ‘public health’ approach to understanding the causes and consequences of violence. In 2004–2005, there were 137 homicides in Scotland, a figure that was halved to 62 by 2016–2017.[483] In response to the high number of homicides, Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit (part of Police Scotland) introduced a community initiative to reduce violence. In 2011, police stated that this led to a 50% reduction in offending for those participating in the programme.[484]

Research shows that while there has been little evaluation of a number of initiatives implemented to reduce violence, the largest declines in homicide and violence are in line with policies and intervention strategies put in place during mid-2000s.[485]

Other important multi-agency initiatives in Scotland include the Navigator Programme.[486] The programme is based in emergency departments and is due to be expanded in 2018–2019. ‘Navigators’ connect with patients in emergency departments and work with people following their discharge to help them gain access to specialist services. Education Scotland also deliver a ‘mentors in violence' programme developed by the Violence Reduction Unit, which promotes positive health and wellbeing among young people.[487]

‘What Works’ in addressing violence in prisons

Below is a summary of evidence on ‘what works’ and what does not work to reduce violence, as identified by an independent academic peer reviewed study for the Ministry of Justice.[488]

What works - Examples

  • Improving the prison environment - Creating cleaner prison environments so that people feel more cared for.
  • Expanding prisoner activities and programmes - Training in cognitive skills
  • Increasing meaningful activities; for example, workshops and education.
  • Staff training programmes - Train staff in skills to de-escalate conflict
  • Provide conflict resolution training to both staff and prisoners;
  • Strengthening procedural justice - Improve procedural justice so that everyone in the prison feels that they are treated more fairly;
  • Staff and prisoners working together to agree on approaches to reduce violence in prison.

What does not work - Examples

  • Increased punishment - Punishment does not lead to a reduction in violence and can result in further grievance with a heightened sense of ‘them and us’
  • Staff body cameras etc. - Can make violent incidents easier to manage, but can have negative effects if not used appropriately.

Actions required:

Action 27.1:

The Government should adopt a ‘public health’ approach towards reducing violence in society, drawing on learning from Scotland.


Irish Penal Reform Trust


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