Prison officer ‘daily’ racially abused by prisoners loses racial discrimination case


A prison officer who was racially abused by inmates on a daily basis has lost a racial discrimination case against the Minister of Justice and the Irish Prisons Service (IPS).

It follows that the Labor Court dismissed an appeal by Peter Onyemekeihia against a 2017 decision by an equality commissioner that Mr Onyemekeihia was not directly or indirectly discriminated against by the Minister of Justice – or the IPS – on the basis of race.

The Equality Officer, Orla Jones, also found that Mr Onyemekeihia was not harassed or harassed by the Attorney General or the IPS under various sections of the Employment Equality Act.

In evidence for Nigerian-born Mr Onyemekeihia before Ms Jones in 2016, it was alleged that the racial abuse included racial taunts and harassment on an effectively daily basis, including for example being called a “black ass” by prisoners. ***d”, the “N” word, a “monkey”, “a black monkey” and the prompt “Open the damn gate, you damn monkey”.

It was also alleged before Ms Jones that prisoners sometimes also threw bananas and peanuts at Mr Onyemekeihia or told him to go home to Congo.

In the Labor Court’s decision, following four days of hearings in 2018 and 2021, Labor Court Deputy Chairman Alan Haugh said it accepted that Mr Onyemekeihia – who began working for the IPS in 2008 – was racially abused by prisoners.

Mr Onyemekeihia, represented in the case by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), argued that the IPS had not taken sufficient steps to stop the type of racist behavior he had witnessed.

Mr Onyemekeihia told the court that the sanctions imposed on the prisoners in question as a result of complaints he had received were either never implemented or implemented only briefly and then suspended.

However, in the court’s findings, Mr Haugh said the court was satisfied, based on the evidence heard, that the IPS had “consistently taken a robust approach” to dealing with allegations of racist behavior by prisoners against officers, including Mr Onyemekeihia, and that the sanctions imposed under the IPS disciplinary regime “are reasonable and proportionate”.

Mr Haugh explained that the IPS operates an active anti-harassment policy which is known and understood by prisoners and officers.

As a result, Ms Haugh said the IPS can therefore invoke a defense under Section 14A of the Employment Equality Act where an employer can show that it took reasonable, practicable steps to prevent the discrimination and harassment.

Mr Haugh concluded: “The complainant’s appeal is therefore unsuccessful.”

Mr Haugh felt that Mr Onyemekeihia’s counsel’s observation was based on the fact that to date, issues of racism and racial harassment may not have received the attention they deserve from the IPS.

As a result, the Labor Court ordered the IPS to conduct a thorough review of its anti-racism strategy and policy, taking into account examples of international best practice in this area in the prison systems of other similar jurisdictions.

Cross-examined in the Labor Court, Mr Onyemekeihia accepted that the vast majority of prisoners do not engage in racist abuse.

Mr Onyemekeihia argued that the sanctions imposed under the IPS disciplinary regime for racial abuse are too mild and not always fully implemented.

He said he believed this gave prisoners the impression that it was okay to racially abuse a prison officer.

John Clinton, witnessing on behalf of Mr. Onyemekeihia, Secretary General of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), said he believed the penalties for prisoners who committed racist attacks against Mr. Onyemekeihia were inadequate and an insufficient deterrent.

In his view, the sanction of parole should have been imposed and that would have been a more appropriate sanction than depriving a prisoner of access to the evening rest.

But Mountjoy’s now-retired Deputy Governor Paul Flynn told the Labor Court that a P19 sanction – for various violations – on a prisoner could result in a prisoner losing his privileges for up to 40 days.

Mr Flynn described this as having a significant impact on a prisoner and an individual prisoner’s record of P19 has downstream consequences if it can be taken into account by the Parole Board and the Probation Service.

Brian Murphy, Mountjoy’s campus governor between 2014 and 2018, told the Labor Court that early in his tenure as governor, between 2,500 and 3,000 P19s were being raised annually at Mountjoy, and that number dropped to about 1,800 per year as the practice of phase-out has been set. Prison officer ‘daily’ racially abused by prisoners loses racial discrimination case

Fry Electronics Team

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