The Irish Prison Service (IPS) began using spit hoods on prisoners two years ago but does not keep a centralised database of their use.
The hoods, known officially as anti-spit guards, are wire and mesh devices designed to be forcibly placed over the heads of violent prisoners to stop them spitting or coughing on officers.
The Garda started using them in response to the Covid-19 pandemic last year, which drew concerns from the Policing Authority and human rights bodies.
Records obtained by The Irish Times show the IPS began using the hoods in 2019, well before the pandemic. It purchased 300 hoods that year and 300 last year, at a total cost of €2,679.
However, the IPS could not say how many times the hoods have since been used. Unlike the Garda, which compiles detailed statistics on the use of spit hoods which are published by the Policing Authority, their use by prison officers is not individually recorded.
A spokesman said it was not possible to provide such details “as the records are not recorded centrally”.
Instead, the usage of hoods is recorded in individual reports which would have to be individually examined to provide statistics.
“Such an examination would require a disproportionate and inordinate amount of staff time and resources and could not be justified with the current demand on resources,” the spokesman said.
A freedom-of-information request for the regulations and protocols governing the use of hoods was denied on the basis it could “impair the security of a penal institution”.
Spit hoods are included in the personal protective equipment (PPE) used by IPS control and restraint teams and local response teams. These are specially-trained prison officers who are deployed to deal with violent incidents or the transportation of particularly violent inmates, often involving the use of riot gear and shields.
The IPS said spit hoods are used “very rarely and only when necessary, eg a planned relocation of a prisoner”. Specialist teams have been trained in the use of spit hoods in recent years along with receiving instruction on other PPE.
“The Irish Prison Service is committed in its strategic plan to create a safer and secure custodial setting in our estate, making prisons a safer place for staff, prisoners and visitors,” the spokesman said.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust said it was “very worrying” that statistics on spit hoods were not available. The trust’s executive director, Fíona Ní Chinnéide, noted a recent report from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture that raised the issue of inadequate record-keeping in Irish prisons.
The committee said a “situation of impunity” can emerge if prison officers are not held accountable for their actions, she said.