Sat, 26 Dec, 2020 – 21:38 Liz Dunphy
Prison officer Noel McGree has had rats left on his doorstep, his home has been egged and his family’s physical and mental health has suffered since he blew the whistle on irregularities in prison procurement.
Antoinette McGree anxiously rubs the same spot on her face until it bleeds as she recounts the horror her family has endured over the past eight years.
Harassment, intimidation, physical and verbal assaults have “ruined” the family since her husband, former prison officer Noel McGree, turned whistleblower on the Irish Prison Service.
Although his initial “largely bureaucratic” complaints, mainly about a misuse of State funds were first raised in 2013 and then went to the Public Accounts Committee in November, 2014, he believes he and his family have been treated harshly as a lesson to others not to allege corruption or malpractice in the IPS.
And despite rousing words from political leaders that Ireland’s appalling treatment of whistleblowers has been relegated to the murky past with new statutes and regulations in place to protect those who expose alleged corruption, the McGrees’ lived experience indicates that that may not always be true.
Although Mr McGree made what he believed to be a Protected Disclosure in 2016, he said the State has failed to protect him and his family.
Just this month, groups of young males egged their property one evening at 9.30pm. Another man was filmed standing outside their house, filming or photographing them at night.
A dead rat has been left on their doorstep and Mr McGree said that his work locker was urinated on with the word ‘rat’ scribbled all over it before he left his job, fearing for his safety.
The distaste for “ratting” among prison officers is as pronounced as it is among prisoners, he said, with serious consequences for those who report on both sides of the bars.
The family – denied Mr McGree’s previous wage of €80,000 which was periodically cut “in error” when he was still working and which has been reduced to €27,000 since January when he was retired from the career he loved, age 47, and was put on his pension – has had to scrimp and save to increase the security in their home, buying a new front door and wildlife night-vision cameras from Lidl to watch for intruders.Noel and Antoinette McGree at their home. Picture: Moya Nolan
“Our house was egged again this week and we get a barrage of abuse on a daily basis,” Mrs McGree said.
“The attacks have escalated in the last couple of months. A few weeks ago, I was followed home after collecting our younger son from soccer. They followed us right up close the whole way into our cul-de-sac with their brights on so we couldn’t see them, then drove away.
Their problems began when Mr McGree, who had been running the Midlands Prison canteen, feeding some 850 prisoners a day, 100 staff and training inmates to QQI level, said that he refused to comply with a corrupt request.
The next day, he said that he was taken off catering, something he had trained in extensively, worked in for 12 years, loved and was good at, and untrained personnel were given his job instead.
He complained first internally and then to the Public Accounts Committee that putting untrained personnel in his role was a health and safety concern and a potentially expensive lawsuit for the State.
He also claimed that the money paid for his training was being wasted when he had been relegated to rookie recruit tasks like yard duty.
But nothing changed and his treatment at work allegedly worsened.
Then, in February, 2015, gardaí told Mr and Mrs McGree that they had been under surveillance.
Someone had seen them being followed and photographed while out shopping and reported it to gardaí.
He outlined three possibilities to the gardai as to who might be behind the surveillance, but he claims he was kept in the dark by prison management.
“I was being ignored by prison management at the time but I needed some engagement on whether my family was under surveillance and I repeatedly emailed for an update,” Mr McGree said.
“In April and again in June 2015, gardaí informed the prison service that there was no threat to my safety. They did not say who was doing the surveillance but that they no longer considered it a threat.
“But the prison service failed to tell us for 17 months – 17 months of stress and anxiety. Driving around roundabouts multiple times to check if you were being followed, constantly on edge.
“I only found out in August 2016 when I went to the Department of Justice which said that they saw the report in my Midlands Prison file.”
Mrs McGree said: “I couldn’t care for my elderly father who had cancer at that time in case I was being followed. I was very reluctant to allow parents to drop their kids to our house in case they were being watched.”
The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) later found that the IPS’ failure to notify the McGrees that gardaí did not consider the reported surveillance to be of any threat, looked like a reprisal against Mr McGree.
All this time, the McGrees said that Portlaoise was becoming increasingly unfriendly.
The town they once thrived in became claustrophobically small. The prison is exactly one mile from their home and former colleagues would shout abuse when walking by on the road or over their garden hedge, they said.
“Portlaoise is a prison town. Almost everyone in Portlaoise is employed by the prison in some way, or related to someone who is,” Mrs McGree said.
“You put your foot on the Dublin Road [outside their home] and you’ll meet a prison officer, their wife or child. We’re originally from Kilkenny and we didn’t have family in Laois so the prison was our family here. We went to the social club, kids parties, family parties but all that stopped.
“We’d been isolating so long the Covid regulations were second nature to us.”
Meanwhile, Mr McGree had complained to the Department of Justice about his isolation and alleged bullying in work. It was suggested that his complaint could be a Protected Disclosure under new legislation brought in following the scandal over garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe’s treatment.
Mr McGree made a Protected Disclosure in March 2016 saying that he had been bullied, intimidated and that he had not been interviewed following a serious assault by a prisoner in which he intervened and in which another officer was slashed with a blade and required multiple stitches in 2015.
He claimed that all of these actions arose from the original complaint he made in November 2014 about the promotion of untrained staff and the misuse of prison resources.
But the Department of Justice then refused to accept that he had made a Protected Disclosure.
Mr McGree appealed and retired judge William Early was appointed to adjudicate.
Former Justice Early held that he had made a Protected Disclosure and that he “was treated unfairly and isolated for making the disclosures and that his opportunities for career advancement were deliberately curtailed by the IPS (Irish Prison Service)”.
”Judge Early found that my career had been affected, I had been docked pay and I was owed some money,” Mr McGree said.
“The Director General said that I had to go to the Workplace Relations Commission to be given what I was owed.
“Two months later, I showed up with Judge Early’s report under my arm, nothing else, to face 12 of them – barristers, prison service officers, Department of Justice officials, at the Workplace Relations Commission.
“They said they would not accept Judge Early’s report and that they did not believe that I made a Protected Disclosure.
“I was subjected to a barrage of questions and had to fight my case all over again. But the WRC upheld my complaint and awarded me €30,000 in March 2018.”
However, the prison service appealed the ruling and the McGrees still have not received the money.
“After each successful hearing, my situation got worse because I went from a disgruntled employee to a credible whistleblower,” Mr McGree said.
They call it Protected Disclosure but there’s no protection, not for the whistleblower or their family.
“We had apologies from Michael Donnellan [former head of the Irish Prison Service] and Frances Fitzgerald [former justice minister], but they’re just paper exercises.
“The State has not supported us. Charlie Flanagan signed off on the pension, so that is something. But McEntee has not even acknowledged that we exist.
“We’ve pleaded with the State for help but to no avail. I used to try to teach the boys to tell the truth, to stand up for yourself. But now I’m inclined to just keep my head down because I’m so scared constantly.
“I would 100% not recommend anyone being a whistleblower. It’s just done so much damage to our lives.”
And that damage is far-reaching and long-lasting.
The situation has taken a heavy toll on Mrs McGree’s health. The 50-year-old has suffered two strokes, she has high blood pressure and developed a debilitating skin condition which has left her permanently scarred and which her doctors say is stress-induced.
“I’d wake up in the morning covered in blood and my legs and arms are too scarred from it to ever wear shorts or a short-sleeved top,” she said.
“I’ve lost my sense of taste and smell from the strokes and my memory is bad. I’ve put on weight with all the medication, I take 24 tablets a day. I’m too scared to walk on my own. I walked a lot and did mini marathons with prison officers and their wives before.”
The situation has also driven the family into debt. Mr McGree claims his wages were often docked “in error” when he was still working.
Their situation was so dire before his pension came through that Mrs McGree sometimes could not afford her medication and would have to lie down all day to stabilise her blood pressure.
“On my son’s 11th birthday he offered us his birthday money to pay the bills,” Mrs McGree said, her voice breaking.
“You don’t expect your child to have to pay the bills or buy their own school uniform. Our house was up for repossession but that’s been put back until January or February to see if we’re paid the €30,000 we were awarded by the Workplace Relations Commission.”
Mr McGree said that he loved his job in the IPS catering section.
His kitchen fed 950 people most days and he trained inmates to QQI level so they could get jobs after leaving prison.
One prisoner, jailed for a serious drugs crime, showed a talent for baking and cake decoration. Mr McGree fostered that talent and took photos of his creations for a portfolio before he left. He now runs his own successful bakery.
“In catering, we did what prison is supposed to do – rehabilitate prisoners. It was very rewarding,” Mr McGree said.
“But after my complaint – which was just about something bureaucratic – it wasn’t about corruption or anything very serious, I was taken away from that and demoted.
“The high walls in prison are not just to keep the prisoners in, they’re to keep the public’s gaze out. There’s no prison oversight body and staff can’t talk to the media under the Official Secrets Act so all the abuse and scandals are kept hidden inside.”
A spokesperson for the IPS said the matters regarding Mr McGree are the subject of ongoing legal proceedings.
“Two WRC cases are under appeal to the Labour Court and are pending a hearing date and the protected disclosure is currently being investigated by an external independent party. Therefore, the Irish Prison Service is unable to comment on these matters until these cases and investigation have concluded.
“The Irish Prison Service has a duty to ensure confidentiality in relation to all investigations involving staff members and to ensure the integrity of same.
“Oversight on matters pertaining to alleged fraud is managed through internal audit and assurance procedures. On behalf of the State, the Irish Prison Service is audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
“The Irish Prison Service is subject to the lawful authority of many other independent regulatory bodies, including the Office of the Inspectorate of Prisons.”
The Department of Justice said it does not comment on ongoing investigations.
So far this year, the IPS’ Protected Disclosures unit has received nine allegations of wrongdoing, two of which were then transferred instead to the Department of Justice for investigation.
Last year, the IPS received eight disclosures – one was transferred to the Department of Justice and seven were put forward for investigation by an independent body.
Four were made in 2018, one of which was said not to meet the criteria for a protected disclosure and the issue was to be resolved under HR policy instead, while three were to be investigated.
A complaint which is categorised as a disclosure grants protections for the discloser and an obligation to conduct a proper investigation.
Although Noel McGree’s disclosure was not deemed to meet the standard of a Protected Disclosure at one point he successfully appealed that decision. That Protected Disclosure is again being investigated.
The IPS started reporting on Protected Disclosures in 2018 but the Department of Justice has reported on these allegations since the Protected Disclosures Act came into force in July, 2014.
In total, the Department of Justice reported 65 disclosures made under the legislation, including Mr McGrees. 45 of these were either assessed as not being a protected disclosure or were transferred to the IPS.
Nine were closed following an investigation and 11 are ongoing.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said it is unable to comment on specific Protected Disclosures and has a duty of confidentiality as set out in the Protected Disclosures Act 2014.
Michael Clifford: Irish laws on drAntoinette McGree: “Portlaoise is a prison town”. Picture: Moya Nolan Noel McGree: “The high walls in prison are not just to keep the prisoners in, they’re to keep the public’s gaze out”. Picture: Moya Nolan