The Irish Prison Service, like many public service bodies, has learned much from its experience over the last three years. Having had our achievements formally recognised at the 2021 Civil Service Excellence and Innovation Awards, in the category of Leading Reform during Covid-19, we have confidence that the lessons we can learn from those experiences are beneficial, writes Donna Creavan.
Throughout the last number of years, in parallel to the organisational response to managing the pandemic, we were hugely successful in continuing to realise our goals, including completion of the new accommodation in Limerick Prison due to open later this year; repurposing a unit in Mountjoy Prison to accommodate older male prisoners who have special requirements as they age; and continued implementation of the Covid-19 vaccination programme for prisoners and staff managed by medical staff, in conjunction with the National Ambulance Service and the HSE.
The Irish Prison Service is facing many challenges with rising numbers in our custody, an aging prisoner population, addressing the mental health needs of people in our custody, maintaining services during times of rising costs, and a tight labour market.
As the Prison Service prepares to go forward on a statutory footing as a Scheduled Officer under a government appointed board, we are strengthening internal controls and governance arrangements to support corporate capacity and maintain and ensure consistency, transparency, and accountability for the services we provide on behalf of the State.
With that in mind, the next iteration of the Strategic Plan will be informed by those challenges and our experiences in the context of current societal challenges and the evolving expectations of our stakeholders. As we look to the future, we will focus on a number of themes to support our aims to consolidate and increase the service capacity to people in our custody, making them more accessible and continued collaboration with our stakeholders to progress penal and public service reform.
Modernising the Prison Services through digital and innovation
In February 2022, the Irish Government launched a new national digital strategy, Harnessing Digital – The Digital Ireland Framework, to drive and enable economic and societal change. Our work in this area is also aligned to the Criminal Justice Sectoral Strategy 2022-2024, pillar three: data as a driver.
Digitalisation of our services, from committal procedures to release will enable transparent, tailored services, prioritising both efficiency and effectiveness in a cohesive and holistic manner. Operating in an environment with increased technology will support us in considering how they address stakeholder needs better while capturing value from new services.
Digital is also a must for innovating educational programs, policies, and practices, and increased digital literacy will support prisoner outcomes which leads to reductions in recidivism and improved public safety. Emerging innovative technologies provides the opportunity to shape the narrative for modernisation of the prison estate and its services. There are significant benefits to supporting staff with the introduction of self-service kiosks and in-cell telephone and devices.
The Prison Service will continue to build on its development of an operational reporting and analysis capability to support being a data-driven service. Improved capability of our data analytics will facilitate improving management information in relation to trend analysis and the identification and management of risks across the service as well as supporting the broader policy objectives of the criminal justice sector through the provision of quality data and metrics that will inform and support policy decision making.
Talent attraction: Succession and retention of people
Attracting and retaining the best people for the organisation forms part of the current strategic plan under the Staff Support pillar and our commitments to recruit and retain staff will continue. We are currently recruiting up to 144 new prison officers this year, and additional staff in 2023.
Recruiting and retaining professionals across operations and healthcare to implement appropriate strategies for a penal setting is a cornerstone for our service. Successfully providing appropriate services, through our staff, and in-reach service providers, is crucial to ensure that prisons are safe and rehabilitative places, and to support offenders to live crime-free lives and not reoffend upon release, thus creating beneficial outcomes for the individuals and society.
To attract and retain talented motivated staff in today’s labour market including people that reflect the broader profile of people in our population now (e.g., non-Irish and ethnic minorities), the Prison Service aims provide a safe and meaningful work environment; continuously review recruitment strategies and ensure there are learning, development and career progression opportunities for staff.
Organisation culture and change
The culture of an organisation can be the strongest driver for positive change or the strongest inhibitor against it. The Prison Service is facing a significant change agenda through its endeavours to modernise the estate and services and as it prepares to be constituted and operate on a statutory basis. Our greatest asset in achieving under this change programme, is our staff.
Prisons are a unique environment and embedding a strong positive organisational culture will positively reinforce our efforts to renew the organisation at this pivotal time. Initiatives such as the Code of Ethics for the Prison Service, published in 2021, codifies the values that support the organisation, to work through complex, challenging situations and will assist to implement change.
Careful strategic planning, aligned with the overarching Criminal Justice Sectoral Strategy 2022-2024, will develop a person centred innovative, collaborative, and transparent culture, which will benefit all stakeholders, prisoners, their families, and staff.
By recognising and respecting the individuality of each person, we can connect with everyone. By recognising and reinforcing positive outcomes for people in our custody, we will foster commitment from our staff and support individuals and teams to deliver good practice consistently in person-centred planning.
As part of the national critical infrastructure with a sensitive brief, the Prison Service is continuously improving the quality of service provided, its staff and public confidence.