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Written Answers. - Suicide Report.

Wednesday, 6 February 2002

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 547 No. 4

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 193. Mr. Timmins Information on Billy Timmins Zoom on Billy Timmins  asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Information on John O'Donoghue Zoom on John O'Donoghue  his plans to implement the recommendations of the special review group which published a report on suicide in 1998; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3883/02]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): Information on John O'Donoghue Zoom on John O'Donoghue The progress in implementing the recommendations of the special review group which published a report on suicide in 1998, in so far as they relate to my Department, provides for the following recommendations in relation to the prison service: that the mentally ill in prison be given appropriate treatment; that a psychiatric service be provided to the prisons and places of detention by visiting psychiatrists and that offenders who, in the opinion of the psychiatrist and the prison medical officer, are in need of in-patient psychiatric treatment may be transferred by ministerial order to either the Central Mental Hospital or a district mental hospital. In practice, all such transfers occur to the Central Mental Hospital.

The Deputy will be aware that I published a report of the group to review the structure and organisation of prison health care services in September 2001. This report made 43 recommendations, including a number regarding the provision of psychiatric services to prisoners. These recommendations are currently being pursued with the health boards and the Department of Health and Children.

Improved access to the Central Mental Hospital is also being discussed with the Department of Health and Children and a review has recently concluded on the future service role of the Central Mental Hospital. Particular effort and resources are to be devoted towards addressing the drug dependency problems of prisoners.

I approved an action plan on drug misuse and drug treatment in the prison system in 1999 which advocated a broad general approach to raise the level of treatment for drug addicted offenders. This included the expansion of detoxification facilities, more drug free areas and the provision of methadone maintenance.

[1641]The director general of the Prison Service then established, at my instigation, a national steering group for prison based drug treatment services with a view to implementing the action plan. The group submitted its first report to me in July, 2000, which recommended the following three pronged strategy: the appointment of a drug treatment co-ordinator for the Dublin prisons; recruitment of drug treatment specialists in the counselling, psychological and medical fields; and a training programme led by an assistant governor to enhance and further professionalise prison officers involved in interpersonal work with drug treatment prisoners.

The implementation of the recommendations contained in the report were approved, in principle, by Government on 18 October 2000 on the basis that the precise staffing and other expenditure related proposals would be the subject of direct negotiations between the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children and Finance as well as the prison service and health boards. A series of meetings have been held since then and, as a result of these discussions, the recruitment process for the two key central positions identified in the steering group's report, that of the assistant governor in charge of training and the co-ordinator of drug treatment services (prisons) commenced in mid 2001.

An appointment was made to the assistant governor post on 20 October 2001. While the recruitment of the co-ordinator is a matter for the Eastern Regional Health Authority, I understand that every effort is being made to fill the position at the earliest possible opportunity. Following consultation with the Department of Finance, the Prison Service and my Department have now commenced the recruitment process for the nursing, psychologist and probation and welfare service posts recommended in the steering group's report. Discussions are continuing with the health boards in relation to the recruitment to the positions from their sector identified in the report.

The provision of methadone maintenance for new committal prisoners already on an approved treatment course in the community has been a key development in the past 18 months. On 25 November 2001 there were 261 prisoners in receipt of methadone maintenance in the prison system as well as a further 57 who were receiving methadone detoxification. Another important initiative has been the opening, in November, 2000, of a designated drug-free wing in St. Patrick's Institution with a capacity for 76 inmates. Building on this successful development, I have issued a direction to the Irish Prison Service to have a designated drug-free area in all institutions under its control within a three year period. A designated drug-free unit is due to open in Wheatfield Prison in the coming months. I also announced recently that the new “C” wing in Limerick Prison with spaces for 78 prisoners will be designated as a drug-free facility when it is inaugurated in 2003. Medical and caring services [1642] within prisons are to be developed to a level equivalent to similar community services.

The provision of prison health care personnel and remuneration issues will be reviewed in the context of the report of the group to review the structure and organisation of prison health care services. A process of recruiting nurses for all prisons has been ongoing since 1999. On 5 February 2002 there were a total of 62 qualified nurses employed by the Prison Service. A co-ordinator of prison nursing services was appointed in 2001.

Support from a range of other services is available to prisoners. These include the probation and welfare service, the chaplaincy service and the Samaritans – portable phones with a direct line to the Samaritans are available to any prisoner on request.

Prison officers receive appropriate training in the recognition of and response to suicidal behaviour. This is covered in the induction programme for prison officers. Eight hundred staff have received this training in the last two and a half years. In addition, information packs have been made available to all prisons.

A number of measures have been introduced in recent years to curtail the smuggling into and use of illegal drugs in the prison system. These include video surveillance, improved visiting and searching facilities, increased vigilance by staff and urine testing. This policy has been further strengthened in Cloverhill, the new remand prison, by the extensive use of screened visits. Where visitors are found attempting to supply drugs to inmates, gardaí are called to the prison. A number of persons have been prosecuted, and some of these prosecutions have resulted in convictions.

The following recommendations are being made in relation to aftermath and aftercare. Relevant professionals are to be trained in confronting and responding to traumatic situations, in particular how best to communicate bad news. The probation and welfare service has, over the years, included a grief counselling module as an integral part of in-service training for probation and welfare officers. Relevant professionals will be made aware of appropriate steps for distraught relatives should they feel they cannot cope. Senior prison management, senior probation and welfare staff attached to each prison and the chaplaincy service always make themselves available to relatives of deceased prisoners. These professionals are best placed to assist the relatives initially.

Counselling is to be made available for professionals who may themselves have been traumatised. The prison psychology service is available to all relevant prison staff in the aftermath of a death in custody or similar severe trauma. In addition the Probation and Welfare Service provides appropriate counselling for staff who may have been traumatised.

I can further inform the Deputy that in May 1999, my Department published the report of the national steering group on deaths in prisons. The [1643] group which was established under the chairmanship of a senior prison governor comprised representatives of the various disciplines involved in the care of prisoners. They had been assigned the task of reviewing and overseeing the implementation of the recommendations of the advisory group on prison deaths published in 1991. The group reported that there are sound policies in place and a high level of awareness among prison staff in relation to suicide awareness. The group also reported that many possible deaths are saved by the alertness and vigilance of staff. Following the publication of its report, I asked the group to continue its monitoring role and it meets on a regular basis. It reviews para-suicides, suicides and provides a forum for collating the reports of the local suicide awareness groups within the institutions and disseminates significant findings and lessons learned through the prison system. The group also organises an annual forum for the suicide awareness groups in each institution.

The national steering group found that of the 57 recommendations contained in the original 1991 report, 34 were fully implemented and a further 15 were partially implemented. The group also made a further 12 recommendations and identified a number of priority issues.

Both the director general of the Prison Service and I are fully committed to ensuring that all possible measures are in place to prevent deaths in prisons. The provision of in-cell televisions, as recommended by the national steering group on deaths in prisons, is well in hand and televisions have been installed in the majority of cells. The establishment of a pilot listening scheme in Castlerea Prison is also due to begin shortly. The recommendations from 1991 and 1998 which are not yet fully implemented are under ongoing consideration in relation to the overall development of the Prison Service.

I am informed that all recommendations, in so far as they relate to the Garda Síochána, have been implemented. I will communicate shortly with the Deputy with regard to the recommendations of the task force concerning firearms.

In relation to the recommendations on coroners and coroner inquests, the report of the working group on the review of the coroner service, published in December 2000, examined all aspects of the standards of service required for relatives of the deceased, including those bereaved through suicide. It recommended an integrated approach to a wide range of support services including the specific measures set out in the suicide task force report relating to coroner training, information provision for relatives, [1644] courtroom facilities and the need to reduce delays in holding inquests.

Legislative preparation to give effect to these new support structures is already in progress in my Department and the question of how best to give effect to specific measures in advance of the new legislation is also being closely examined.


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