Prison Service spent €30k on spying

Aidan O’Driscoll
By Michael Clifford

The Irish Prison Service (IPS) paid nearly €30,000 to two private investigation firms, it has emerged, as an investigation continues into claims that officers were tracked and monitored during covert surveillance on the country’s prisons.

The IPS has confirmed two private investigation firms were employed by the service in 2011 and 2012. Both companies were employed by the Operational Support Group of the prison service, which oversees security.

The records show one firm was paid €18,228 over the two years, while a second received €10,774 in 2011.

In a letter to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), secretary general of the Department of Justice Aidan O’Driscoll said he was not in a position to confirm whether this money was for covert surveillance.

“It is not possible from the information available to determine if these payments relate to the surveillance of prison staff,” Mr O’Driscoll said. 

“However, a copy of the invoices concerned have been forwarded to the Inspector of Prisons as part of her ongoing investigation.”

In an explosive affidavit in November, whistleblower assistant chief officer David McDonald made a series of claims including:

  • Tracking devices were placed on several prison service vehicles and in the private cars of prison officers;
  • The drivers of the prison vehicles, and the prison officers whose private cars were tracked, were unaware of the surveillance;
  • Some of these devices remained in place over a long period and intelligence gathered was passed to gardaí;
  • Listening devices were put in the visitor area of one prison to gather information. In some instances, these devices were in place when prisoners had conversations with their solicitors;
  • Personnel from the private detective agency were provided with false identities to enter the prison and install covert surveillance cameras. The images from the cameras were beamed to another location despite obvious security concerns about such images falling into the hands of criminals.

Following the publication of the allegations in the Irish Examiner, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan appointed the inspector of prisons, Patricia Gilheaney, to conduct a preliminary investigation.

Mr O’Driscoll wrote to the PAC yesterday: “The Irish Prison Service has no information to suggest that any authorised covert surveillance of a prison officer has been undertaken by the Irish Prison Service or on its behalf during the last five years.”

It is unclear from the letter how exactly “authorised” covert surveillance could be carried out by the IPS.

Mr McDonald’s claims about covert surveillance date from more than five years ago, although some of his claims of malpractice date are more recent.

The inquiry will have to examine a number of strands to the claims, including whether, if covert surveillance was carried out, is it possible that it was done so legally?

PAC member and Fianna Fáil TD Marc McSharry said he was concerned bosses at the IPS did not know what was going in prisons.

“I have information that l have to get legal advice on that will contradict some of the stuff we have here,” said Mr McSharry. 

“Some of the stuff just doesn’t stand up and we will have to revisit it and I have a concern that Longford [IPS headquarters] doesn’t know what’s going on in some prisons.

We’re not sure that money spent on surveillance was of staff, it’s just not credible. Expenditure is supposed to be OK-ed by director of operations of the prison service and why would he or she OK something that they didn’t know what it was for.

Ms Gilheaney is conducting the probe under the 2007 Prisons Act. The Irish Examiner understands that, during one recent interview, the interviewee had to be excused due to ill health. 

Another former prison officer has declined, on legal advice, to be interviewed.

Ms Gilheaney is expected to report back to the minister by the end of the month.

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