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Prison Service

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 25 November 2021

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Ceisteanna (118)

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

118. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Minister for Justice the number of incidents of Covid-19 in Irish prisons; the impact of Covid-19 infections on the Irish Prison Service and the Courts Service to date; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57611/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Justice)

I am taking this question on behalf of Deputy Howlin. What is the number of Covid-19 cases in our Prison Service? What has been the impact on the service and the Courts Service? I would like an update on that.

The Irish Prison Service has undertaken excellent work during this pandemic to prevent the spread of Covid-19. A wide range of measures was introduced to address the risks facing the service. The service is fortunate to have an executive clinical lead and a head of infection control in place. The excellent work of its teams is guided by the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and is consistent with prison specific guidance of the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

At the outset, the management of the service recognised the importance of planning for future outbreaks and this has stood up to a prolonged challenge which none of us could have anticipated. I am advised that as of 23 November 2021, which was this week, a total of 277 positive cases of Covid-19 had been identified among the prisoner population since March 2020. Some 112 of these cases were committed to custody positive for Covid-19; they already had Covid before they were committed to custody. It is also important to note that for the greater part of last year, there were no cases in our prison. As virus numbers have escalated, we have seen that what happens in the community inevitably happening in our prisons, in the same way the virus comes into various care settings and other places.

I commend the Irish Prison Service and its staff, all of whom are working tirelessly to control infection while continuing to provide a range of rehabilitative support services for people in their care. They work closely with my Department and other relevant agencies, including the Courts Service, in this context. The Courts Service has also worked with absolute determination to address the challenges presented by the pandemic. A robust safety management programme and multiple operational adaptations, including through greater use of technology, have enabled the ongoing provision of the courts. The pandemic has impacted on the ability of the courts to operate in their normal function. However, a detailed management plan, similar to that in place in the prisons, is also in place in the courts and there is constant engagement between the director general of the Irish Prison Service and the CEO of the Courts Service.

The intent of this question was to seek a genuine update. It was not a "gotcha" question or anything like that. The Prison Service has done a remarkable job since the start of this pandemic in keeping the virus out of our prisons. In this fourth wave, we know the virus is everywhere and it is important that we do not forget about our prison community, both workers and prisoners, many of whom are living in very cramped conditions. Before the pandemic, concerns were expressed about a number of our prisons in regard to prisoners' quarters and the conditions in which they are held. When the pandemic first hit, there was greater concern that prisons would be more vulnerable to the spread of infection. As I said, the Prison Service has done a great job in keeping it at bay, as best as possible.

Is the Minister aware of any hospitalisation among prisoners due to Covid-19? Will she reaffirm her confidence that, throughout this wave and beyond, the Prison Service is robust enough to keep the virus at bay insofar as it has done so already?

I have absolute confidence in the management and all the staff and teams working in our prisons. At every stage, they have tried to protect not only themselves but the prisoner population. As I said, for the most part of last year, there were no cases. As virus cases have increased in number, we have, as the Deputy noted, seen what is happening in the community being reflected in prisons. We have also seen a high uptake of vaccines in prisons, as there has been in the community, and this has protected very many people.

There has been an understanding in recent times that we cannot keep people under 24-hour lockdown. When we were in level 5 lockdown, the lockdown in prisons was also very severe. It meant there were no in-person visits and many educational programmes ceased. There has been a move away from that because there is an awareness that we must live with Covid-19. Physical visits resumed in September. Obviously, all of these measures are kept under continuous review to ensure we keep people safe and also respect the human rights of prisoners. I have every confidence the system will do its best in this regard. The Deputy mentioned hospitalisation which I will come back to in my final response.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I am happy to receive a response on hospitalisation in an email or in writing. It is a credit to the Prison Service, which is doing an unbelievably difficult job in very difficult circumstances. Many Members of this House have not forgotten our prisoners and prison workers during this pandemic. When issues come up, we will raise them.

There have been hospitalisations in prisons in the same way that we have seen hospitalisations across the country due to Covid-19. Unfortunately, the Prison Service has not escaped that. The first death in custody was recorded in recent times and I know that was extremely distressing and upsetting for everybody working in the Prison Services. It was, however, the first death, which again shows the effort and focus there have been on keeping people safe, protecting them and ensuring as many people as possible, if not all, are vaccinated and that, where restrictions on people's ability to interact and go about their daily lives are necessary, they are limited.

We are providing as much support as possible to the Prison Service and the Courts Service. The Deputy also asked how the pandemic had impacted on the work of the latter. The services are continuing to engage with each other to put the right measures in place. The Department is working with both the Courts Service and the Prison Service. We have provided additional funding so they can amend and adapt their services, particularly when it comes to technology. As this pandemic continues and we learn to live with Covid-19, we will continue to provide supports, where necessary.

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