Ireland: evidence of wrongful surveillance by prison service staff uncovered

Prison service staff attempting to stop the supply of drugs and contraband into Irish jails wrongfully, and possibly illegally, carried out covert surveillance, a major inquiry has found.

The Inspector of Prisons has uncovered the covert surveillance by the Irish Prison Service’s operational support group (OSG),which is tasked with stopping the flow of contraband and drugs into prison, between 2010 and 2012.

The inquiry, led by Inspector of Prisons Patricia Gilheaney, was commissioned last year after prison service staff member David McDonald raised allegations relating to the Midlands Prison in a High Court affidavit.

Some of the practices uncovered may constitute illegal conduct, the inspector said. Evidence of wrongdoing has been forwarded to the Garda and Data Protection Commissioner for further investigation.

Responding to the report, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan announced a new Prisons Board would be established under an independent chair as well as new audit, risk and culture committees.

“*I am concerned at the findings in the report that a small number of personnel in the OSG may have acted wrongfully in the past – going far beyond their remit and engaging in unacceptable practices,”* the Minister said.

Irish Prison Service (IPS) director general Caron McCaffrey announced that the OSG would be reviewed and that a new code of ethics would be introduced.

Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan said the findings were “troubling and require a prompt response by government”. The Prison Officers’ Association said it was “deeply concerned”.


Mr McDonald alleged the OSG carried out covert surveillance on staff, prisoners and solicitors between 2010 and 2013 which was sanctioned “at the highest levels”.

Ms Gilheaney found evidence to support several of Mr McDonald’s allegations but found no indication the practices had been sanctioned by senior prison service management.

The inspector found the OSG paid €29,000 to two private security firms between 2011 and 2012 for services including tracking devices and CCTV cameras which were installed inside and outside prisons. These services were procured outside normal rules, she said.

These devices were used to carry out covert surveillance in a unit of the Midlands Prisons and in an office used by staff. Evidence was also found that a tracking device was placed on a prison officer’s car but Ms Gilheaney said she could not determine if this allegation was true.

One of the most serious allegations made by Mr McDonald was that he was instructed by OSG governor John Kavanagh to covertly monitor conversations between prisoners and their solicitors in the Midlands Prison using a voice-activated recording device.

Mr McDonald said it was a verbal order and there would be no written record of it. Mr Kavanagh told the investigation team that he never gave such an order and said the IPS took prisoner-solicitor confidentiality very seriously.

Other staff told the inspector listening devices were placed in the “lifers box” where prisoners serving life sentences meet with their families but that no solicitor conversations were recorded.

The inspector uncovered a letter from July 2013 requesting the monitoring of all calls between two prisoners and their solicitors in the belief they may be discussing criminal activity. The letter appears to have been initialled from Mr Kavanagh and IPS director of operations Brian Murphy.

However, the matter was not progressed after another staff member raised concerns about “the doctrine of legal privilege”.

The inspector also confirmed an incident in January 2012 where a recycling truck containing drugs and phones was allowed to drive on to the premises of Midlands Prison. The OSG knew the truck was carrying contraband and searched it once it stopped. The two occupants were arrested.

Senior officers in the prison complex were very unhappy when they learned an OSG sting operation had been set up on prison premises without their knowledge. One officer said he would never have allowed the truck to drive on to prison grounds had he known and described the incident as “somewhat embarrassing”.

Mr McDonald also alleged a prisoner in the Midlands acted as a confidential informant and that Mr McDonald gave him a mobile phone so he could pass on information about illegal activities in the prison.The inspector found that a person matching the name and description of the informant was detained in the Midlands during the relevant period but could find no other corroborating evidence for the allegation.

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