Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

27: Violence in Irish Prisons

Standard 27:

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


Research [562] has highlighted how methods of reducing violence traditionally focused on: treating violence as rule-breaking, punishing those who engage in fights, targeting prevention at those who staff identify as aggressive and separating perpetrators from victims. However, there has been a more recent shift in the traditional focus towards the use of conflict-centred strategies, [563] whereby:

Findings from the same research [564] highlighted a lack of knowledge about causes of violence and a tendency to label individuals as opposed to managing behaviour constructively. The report highlights:

Thus, to prevent violence, the strategy must focus on recognising conflicts, understanding how they escalate, changing the structural contributors and knowing how to intervene. [565]

Current context:

The number of violent incidents across the prison estate (2012-2017) is outlined under Indicator 27.1.

A new therapy unit, National Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) [566] , is currently being set up by the Irish Prison Service to address the needs of those exhibiting violent behaviour. The objectives [567] of the VRU are:

  1. Reduce repeat violent offending
  2. Improve psychological health, well being, pro- social behaviour and relational outcomes
  3. Improve competence, confidence and attitudes of staff working with complex prisoners
  4. Increase efficiency, cost effectiveness and quality of services

This unit will be the first co-led unit with the Prison Psychology Service. The importance of staff as agents of change is the focus of the Unit. [568] The criteria for admission is outlined in the Violent and Disruptive Prisoner Policy. [569] A National Committee has been established to provide oversight and feedback in terms of referrals to the unit. [570]

The unit is based on the idea of Close Supervision Centres in the UK. [571] The Unit will accommodate six prisoners and an additional four prisoners admitted for assessment [572] . The assessment period is four months. All staff in the unit will be provided with seven weeks of specialised training from September 2018. PhD research [573] is being carried out to review progress of the Unit. IPRT welcomes this monitoring, which was recommended in PIPS 2017. [574]

Indicators for Standard:

Indicators for Standard 27

Indicator S27.1: The number of violent incidents across the prison estate: The number of assaults by prisoners on other prisoners decreased by 27% to 417 in 2017. Acts of violence by prisoners on staff was up by 1% to 104 incidents. [575] The numbers of recorded assaults on prison officers by prisoners and prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, from 2014 to 2017, by prison, are outlined in the tables below:

Prisoner Assaults on Prison Officers:
Prison/ Place of Detention 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Arbour Hill 0 0 1 0 0 0
Castlerea 7 5 9 11 1 13
Cloverhill 9 12 20 8 21 8
Cork 7 8 13 7 3 9
Dóchas Centre 3 7 8 5 26 14
Limerick 10 5 3 2 4 8
Loughan House 0 0 0 0 0 0
Midlands 10 7 13 17 7 15
Mountjoy (male) 19 34 30 22 12 18
St Pat’s Inst. 36 49 20 0 0 N/A
Portlaoise 0 3 2 6 5 3
Shelton Abbey 0 0 0 0 0 0
Training Unit 0 0 0 0 0 0
Wheatfield 6 10 26 10 12 10
PSEC 0 7 6 3 5 6
OSG 0 0 0 0 2 0
Total 107 147 151 91 98 104
Prisoner-on-Prisoner Assaults:
Prison/ Place of Detention 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Arbour Hill 4 7 6 5 0 0
Castlerea 73 103 119 117 139 79
Cloverhill 97 76 90 88 82 42
Cork 43 30 51 27 33 44
Dochas Centre 25 21 16 47 30 33
Limerick 45 31 37 24 5 18
Loughan House 1 0 0 1 0 0
Midlands 68 88 77 47 50 45
Mountjoy (male) 92 107 96 176 156 113
St Pat’s Inst. 156 57 9 2 0 N/A
Portlaoise 12 5 11 2 15 14
Shelton Abbey 1 0 0 0 0 0
Training Unit 0 0 1 0 0 2
Wheatfield 98 77 74 47 55 24
PSEC 0 2 2 4 7 3
Total 715 604 589 587 572 417

Indicator S27.2: The prevalence of sexual violence across the prison estate: It was reported [576] that 12 allegations of sexual violence were made by prisoners against prison authorities up to August 2018.

Indicator S27.3: The number of prisoners kept in Close Supervision Cells and duration of time spent in these cells: Latest census [577] figures show that nine prisoners are accommodated in Close Supervision Cells. Data is not published on the lengths of time prisoners spend in these cells. The Irish Prison Service committed at the UNCAT oral hearing to publishing overall lengths spent in Close Supervision Cells in quarterly statistics. [578] This has not happened.

Indicator S27.4: The establishment of a therapy- focused unit for prisoners who are violent and disruptive: The unit was due to open in the first quarter of 2018, [579] but delays have meant that the new timeline for the opening of the unit is now estimated to be November 2018. Indicator S27.5: Supports available to staff (see Staff Training section, Standard 29)

Progressive Practice:

Dynamic Security

Dynamic security is a practice that involves both proactive and regular interaction between prison staff and prisoners. [580] It provides an opportunity for staff to anticipate warning signs about possible incidents before they occur. [581] This approach has proved to improve security in prisons. [582]

Principles for resolving conflicts in prison settings [583]

  1. Analyse the prison as a conflict-generating environment.
  2. The role of prison officer as ‘peacekeeper’ is critical, including placing emphasis on ‘dynamic security’ [584] and enabling officers to identify conflicts before they escalate.
  3. Prisoners’ interests in a safe prison can be encouraged.
  4. Rebuild trust – there are two approaches that should be followed in this respect: first, the primary aim of discipline is to ensure that all prisoners are safe, which leads to greater confidence by prisoners. The second is hearing the voice of both staff and prisoners.
  5. Conflict resolution should be embedded in prison governance: “Most prisons lack options for prisoners who seek non-violent ways of resolving differences.” [585] Approaches could include: wing forums, trained impartial mediators, violence reduction representatives or formal opportunities to negotiate conflict resolution.

As highlighted by Edgar: [586]

Embedding conflict resolution means establishing structures that enable management and staff to bring conflicts to light and working with prisoners to try [to] find solutions. Governors need to be resourceful in trying to learn from prisoners what their main concerns are about. For example, they might use a prisoner council to raise and resolve some of the basic, structural conflicts in the prison […] Conflict resolution can refine violence reduction strategies and empower governors, officers and prisoners in their efforts to make prisons safer.

Council of Europe Draft Recommendation on Restorative Justice

In 2018, the Council of Penological Co- Operation [587] published a draft Recommendation concerning restorative justice in criminal matters. The Draft Recommendation states:

Recognising that restorative justice may increase awareness of the important role of individuals and communities in preventing and responding to crime and its associated conflicts, thus encouraging more constructive criminal justice responses. [588]

Democratic Therapeutic Communities

Democratic Therapeutic Communities (DTC) have been adopted in England to address and reduce violence in prisons. DTCs provide for group-based therapy, which places emphasis on personal responsibility and encourages social and democratic participation.

Case Study: Grendon Prison, England

Grendon Prison is an example of a DTC that has yielded positive results. The prison accepts high-risk offenders who have a history of serious violent offending behaviour. Individuals must be willing and motivated to change. There is a contract (e.g. a prisoner must have had no positive drug tests for two months on admission and must accept responsibility for the offence [589] ).

The prison’s capacity is 238. [590] It has five wings with 40 prisoners per wing. These wings are referred to as ‘communities’ and each community develops its own Constitution. Each wing is staffed by psycho-dynamically trained therapists, psychologists and prison officers, who all participate in and facilitate therapy groups. [591] Prisoners are referred to as ‘residents’ and are entitled to vote on all aspects of daily life, while staff maintain a veto on some issues. [592] The community can impose sanctions if rules laid out in the Constitution are broken; this allows prisoners to understand their responsibilities to the community. However, sanctions are typically used as a last resort with resolution primarily through constructive dialogue. [593]

The therapeutic process is a central tenet of Grendon Prison. HM Chief Inspector of Prisons found it allowed prisoners and staff to reflect on and challenge each other’s behaviour to create an atmosphere of mutual respect. [594] HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (2017) identified that conflict and poor behaviour were managed very well through the therapeutic process, with most behavioural issues successfully resolved within therapeutic groups. The Chief Inspector also noted that staff completed violence reduction documents very well. Grendon Prison also has a Prison Safety Custody Representative on each wing, who provided additional peer support to those on the wing.

The regime in Grendon allows prisoners have 10.5 hours out-of-cell time Monday to Thursday and seven hours out-of-cell time on the remaining days. The Inspectorate noted that time out of cell was “excellent” with a broad range of extra-curricular activities being offered. Family days are held every six months where prisoners can meet their families from 10am to 4pm. There are no segregation units to separate inmates from the wing. [595]

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (2017) found prisoners reported feeling safe and although many prisoners in Grendon had a history of violence, the levels of violence were low. [596] The report highlighted that what was outstanding at Grendon Prison was the positive relationships between staff and prisoners, and among prisoners and their peers. A reduction in re- offending occurred for prisoners who spent 18 months in the prison. Research has found that recidivism rates in Grendon Prison are approximately 20%, lower than those found in other prison regimes. [597]

The European Prison Observatory [598] makes two key recommendations to EU member states:

(1.) Recommendation 3: The EU collates evidence on positive mediation as a restorative practice and communicates this research to the penal systems of other member states.

(2.) Recommendation 4: The EU should encourage the development of a trial and evaluation model of the Grendon model in each member state.

Actions required:

Action 27.1: The Department of Justice and Equality and the Irish Prison Service should consider the ethos of Democratic Therapeutic Communities in future planning, and use the ethos to inform units such as the Independent Living Skills Unit and the National Violence Reduction Unit.


IPRT Irish Penal Reform Trust


Copyright 2019 Irish Penal Reform Trust. CHY number: 11091

viewed here