I propose to take Questions Nos. 369 and 372 together.
I have previously set out the wide range of measures adopted by the Irish Prison Service, to address the risk presented by Covid-19 in a prison environment.
Guided by the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), and consistent with the prison specific guidance for the management of Covid-19 issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and guidance of the Council of Europe, measures introduced have included:
- The introduction of a basic health check, including taking of temperatures for all persons, including staff, entering prisons from 29 March;
- Suspension of physical family visits, replaced by the introduction of video visits;
- Quarantining for 14 days of all newly committed prisoners, in order to reduce the risk that a new committal who might be incubating the virus could spread Covid-19 to the general prison population;
- Isolation of suspected case or prisoner with symptoms to prevent the risk of transmission of infection;
-“cocooning” of vulnerable prisoners, including all prisoners aged 70 years or more or those who are deemed medically vulnerable;
- comprehensive training for IPS staff and the provision of appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) across the prison estate;
- strong communication with staff and prisoners, including two prison newsletters published weekly and regular Covid-19 information leaflets for prisoners and newsletters for staff regarding actions taken; and
- establishment of a robust contract tracing model which has been acknowledged by the World Health Organization as best practice.
The strategy employed by the Irish Prison Service to control the risks arising during this pandemic has to date been successful, thanks to the detailed planning carried out and the cooperation and understanding of all concerned, including both staff and prisoners. I understand that, as of 26 May 2020, there has been no positive prisoner case of Covid-19 within the Irish prison service.
I understand that the Irish Prison Service continues to manage the risks and challenges faced in a prison context during the Covid-19 pandemic in line with public health guidelines. In doing so, it maintains a close working relationship with my Department, relevant criminal justice authorities, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and the Health Service Executive (HSE).
As the Deputy will appreciate, the classification of prisoners as a vulnerable group by the NPHET means that the Irish Prison Service must exercise an abundance of caution in relation to the unwinding of the measures which are currently in place to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading in our prisons.
I am assured by the Irish Prison Service that its Emergency Response Planning Team is continually updating contingency plans in relation to Covid-19. I am further informed that these contingency plans are, by their nature, highly operational and are subject to change given the multiple scenarios that are possible. I am assured that the Irish Prison Service will publicise changes and plans in a timely manner, as the situation develops.
Specifically in relation to the Deputy’s query on risk assessments, I am informed that, in the context of declining rates of infection in the community, the Irish Prison Service is currently carrying out a risk assessment to determine when and how the restrictions put in place in recent months may be eased, while also ensuring that it maintains control of the risk of the spread of infection and ensures good order and security in the prisons.
I understand that the risk assessment currently being undertaken includes the following elements:
- Reviewing the physical access in-reach services provided to the prisons, including psychology, education, chaplaincy and addiction counsellors. In terms of current arrangements it may be noted that to mitigate against the impact of these services not being available in a traditional manner, I understand the Prison Service has put in place a dedicated phone service for prisoners to reach out to chaplains, psychologists and addiction counsellors and that it has increased the use of technology to ensure these essential services continue.
- Reviewing at what stage and how physical visits with families may resume, while maintaining controls at point-of-entry to screen for the infection; maintaining social distancing in the waiting rooms and during visits. Pending any change and as the Deputy may be aware, additional phone calls have been provided to prisoners and a facility for family video-link calls has also been put in place.
- Reviewing the regime management plans in place, which restrict the movement of prisoners around the prison and impacts out-of-cell and yard time. Again it should be noted that to mitigate against the negative impact of the more restricted regimes in place during the current Covid-19 pandemic, I am informed that the Prison Service has ensured that gym facilities for prisoners remain opened, albeit on a reduced schedule and has taken a range of other measures including for example installation of additional TV channels for prisoners in their cells and issuance of a weekly newsletter to prisoners providing information on what the Irish Prison Service is doing and why.
- I am also informed that the Prison Service is working with the HSE to put in place a process that will facilitate the testing of all new committals to the prisons at an early stage, which will allow for the prisoner to exit quarantine and enter the general population at an earlier stage, provided test results are negative.
Finally, the Deputy may wish to be aware that the Irish Prison Service has assured me that it is at all times cognisant of the impact of its decisions on people in custody. This impact is taken into account at all times, including at every stage of the planning process and the implementing of actions necessary to control and mitigate against the risk of Covid-19 in the prison environment.