In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and as the Deputy will appreciate, a wide range of measures have been required to protect our prison population, in line with public health advice. I have previously set out detail on the measures adopted to address the risk presented by Covid-19 in a prison environment, guided by the advice of NPHET and consistent with the prison-specific guidance of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Measures adopted included:
-- reduction of prisoner numbers through use of temporary release of low-risk prisoners, following case-by-case assessment;
-- 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 video visits;
-- quarantining for 14 days of all newly committed prisoners; isolation of suspected case or prisoners with symptoms; and “cocooning” of vulnerable prisoners;
-- comprehensive training for IPS staff and the provision of appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) across the prison estate; and
-- establishment of a robust contract tracing model which has been acknowledged by the WHO as best practice.
I am pleased to say that to date there has been no prisoner case of Covid-19 in Irish prisons. Nevertheless the risk continues and must be managed.
In relation to the categories of prisoners referred to by the Deputy, I can say the following.
First, in relation to cocooning: in line with the position at the time in the wider community, the Prison Service operated a regime whereby all prisoners aged 70 years or more and prisoners deemed medically vulnerable due to specific serious underlying medical conditions were cocooned in the prisons in which they were detained. These cocooning prisoners were removed from free association, but could associate with one another in dedicated areas. I am informed that the practice of cocooning has now ceased in prisons, in line with the general easing of relevant public health restrictions in the community. However prisoners formerly cocooning were offered the option of a restricted regime at their own request.
In relation to isolation, I am advised that any prisoner who informs staff that they are experiencing symptoms of Covid-19 is immediately assessed by prison healthcare staff, who arrange for the prisoner to be isolated and tested. I am further informed that any prisoner who has had contact with another person who has been tested for Covid-19 and is awaiting results is also isolated from the prison population, while they are tested and awaiting the results of said test.
In addition, all prisoners newly committed to prison are placed in quarantine for 14 days before being transferred into general population. This measure is in place to reduce the risk that a new committal who might be incubating the virus could spread Covid-19 into the general prison population.
I am informed by the Prison Service that it is not possible to provide a breakdown of the out-of-cell hours for each of these groups of prisoners, as they vary on a daily basis and for a variety of reasons including for example the number of prisoners involved, the number of staff available, and differences in physical layout of each prison.
However I am advised that any prisoners who were cocooning as well as those in quarantine continue to have access to a wide range of services and facilities within the prison. These facilities include psychological support, phone calls, television, tuck shop and chaplaincy services. I understand that particular efforts have also been made to ensure that prisoners could communicate with their families, through increased provision of telephone services and video visits. The Deputy will appreciate that for medical and infection control reasons, those prisoners in isolation due to suspected or symptoms of infection were on a more restrictive form of regime, while the testing process was completed.
The Irish Prison Service began to collate specific figures of the type referred to by the Deputy from 27 April 2020 onwards. The following table, furnished to me by the Irish Prison Service sets out the details requested by the Deputy for the period from 27 April to 3 July 2020 (percentages rounded).