The National Violence Reduction Unit (NVRU) – a high security prison unit designed to house Ireland’s most violent inmates – has remained only about half full since it opened 14 months ago.
The unit in the Midlands Prison in Portlaoise has specialist close supervision cells, nine for regular use and one for emergencies. It was designed with an emphasis on safety and intense psychological intervention for the most challenging prisoners in the system.
The Irish Prison Service (IPS) opened the unit in December 2018 at a cost of €2.7 million, after examining similar units in UK prisons.
Since then it has housed between four and six prisoners, IPS director of care and rehabilitation Fergal Black told The Irish Times. There are currently five prisoners in the unit, three in long-term cells and two in assessment cells, with a sixth expected to be moved there shortly.
Mr Black said the committee in charge of the unit has very strict criteria for who is admitted. Prisoners must have engaged in “serious, repetitive or escalating violence”.
This could be a single incident such as murder or attempted murder in a prison or a pattern of violent behaviour.
“If a prisoner doesn’t meet the criteria, he doesn’t get admitted. We want to work with men who we believe pose the greatest risk of violence in prison. And by extension the greatest risk of violence post-release.”
The Prison Officers’ Association has previously called for the establishment of similar units in all closed prisons in response to increased overcrowding, and violence against staff. But Mr Black said the number of prisoners displaying the level of violence required for admission to the unit is “very, very small”.
“We’re very clear that this is a unit for dealing with that top, less than 1 per cent of the [prison] population”.
Mr Black said there had been assaults by prisoners in the unit since it was established but he was happy that staff had built a new, relationship-based approach to reducing risk. There have been media reports of several violent incidents in the NVRU including the stabbing of a prison officer with a pen by convicted murderer Brian Veale last year.
“It would probably be unreasonable to think we would transfer repetitively violent prisoners to a unit and there would never be violence again,” Mr Black said.
“It’s a work in progress. These prisoners are very complex and very challenging. It’s long-term work in many cases.”
He said the number of assaults by prisoners in the unit was “probably in the single figures” and that there had not been a violent incident in three months.
There are 22 operational staff – more than four for each prisoner – and two psychologists working in the NVRU. Staff are specially selected and undergo intense training before and while they are working on the unit, said Mr Black. He said staff find the work “very intensive because they are dealing with men where they need to vigilant at all times”.
There are strict protocols for handling prisoners, with up to six officers and an assistant chief officer required to transport the most violent inmates. These protocols become more or less strict based on weekly risk assessments of prisoners.
Mr Black said that although they are “loath to do it”, sometimes staff have to use “barrier handling” when dealing with prisoners. This involves interacting with prisoners while using riot gear and shields.
“I make no apologies for that. If staff safety is imperilled we have to take appropriate action. But we are then working at all times to eliminate barrier handling and get back to proper engagement with the prisoner.”