I am acutely aware of the supportive role that families and friends play in the rehabilitation of prisoners and in their preparation for life in the community after release from prison.
I understand that, with this in mind, the Irish Prison Service continued to facilitate physical family visits to prisons for as long as it was safe to do so. However, the Covid-19 pandemic clearly presents unique challenges to congregated settings, including our prisons.
Covid-19 in a prison setting would present significant challenges, in terms of controlling the spread of the virus amongst staff and prisoners; in the provision of appropriate medical treatment to affected persons; and the maintenance of staffing levels. To respond to this threat, a very significant number of actions were taken by the Irish Prison Service, informed and 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 Organisation (WHO) in March 2020.
In that context, the Deputy will appreciate it was necessary in the interest of the health and welfare of our prison population to suspend physical family visits in March, when public health restrictions on movement and gatherings were introduced due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Due to these and other measures introduced by the Irish Prison Service as well as the efforts of staff, Red Cross Volunteers and prisoners themselves, there has to date been no confirmed prisoner case of Covid-19 in our prisons. Nevertheless the Deputy will appreciate that the risk continues and must be managed.
In line with the Government Roadmap and with infection control in mind, the Irish Prison Servicehas completed a comprehensive risk assessment on the return of physical prison visits to each prison, within relevant physical and resource confines. I am informed that the Irish Prison Service plans for a phased recommencement of physical family visits from Monday 20 July 2020.
However, the Deputy will appreciate the recommencement of visits poses a number of challenges in such an environment and must be carefully calibrated in line with ongoing risk assessments, taking account of latest public health advice, Government restrictions and the prevailing transmission rate of the virus in the community.
To illustrate the scale of this challenge, the Irish Prison Service indicates that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, over 4,500 visitors entered our prisons on a weekly basis. In order to ensure effective infection control and allow for appropriate social distancing on resumption of physical visits, it will be necessary for capacity in both waiting areas and visiting areas to be significantly reducedto ensure family members and friends can resume visits safely. This will impact on the ability of the Irish Prison Service to meet the anticipated level of demand for physical visits in the immediate term.
I am, of course, mindful of the ongoing impact of these necessary measures on prisoners andtheir families. In that regard, I would note that parallel to the suspension of physical visits, the Prison Service introduced a number of new innovations including video visits, to enable prisoners to maintain contact with their families during these difficult times. I hope that, as physical visits recommence gradually, it will be possible to continue the innovation of the video calls, which I know have been appreciated by families.