Irish Penal Reform Trust

Leaving no one behind? IPRT position on COVID-19 vaccine roll-out in prisons in Ireland

4th June 2021

IPRT is concerned by the current situation in Irish prisons and in particular the delays in vaccine roll-out among prisoners as part of the COVID-19 Vaccine Allocation Strategy. To this end, we have written to the Minister for Health, Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Chief Inspector of Prisons and Director General of the Irish Prison Service to outline relevant concerns as they relate to vaccination of people in prison.

The concerns we have raised in our communications with stakeholders are detailed below. While not every concern was outlined to every stakeholder, each of the concerns was expressly shared with those from whom it is most relevant. In all communications, IPRT requested that all stakeholders work together to resolve the situation in relation to vaccine roll out in prisons, with urgency.
 

  1. Equivalence of care

We strongly maintain our position that the heightened duty of care to protect the lives of individuals deprived of their liberty by the State means prisoners should be among the priority groups for vaccines and not last in line.

As of 26th May 2021, only 82 prisoners had been vaccinated. This is just 2.1% of the prison population compared with a reported 50% of eligible adults in the community receiving their first dose by end May 2021. This divergence suggests that prisoners are not receiving equivalence of care, which may be in breach of national and international rules and standards. Furthermore, the current divergence does not adhere to the Government’s ethical framework set out in the National COVID-19 Vaccination Strategy – specifically the principles of moral equality, minimisation of harm, and fairness.
 

  1. Prison vaccination is necessary to protect public health

On 28th May 2021, the World Health Organisation, UN Office on Drugs & Crime and Penal Reform International published a joint briefing on vaccination in prisons. The briefing emphasises the importance of including prisons in national COVID-19 vaccination plans, given the heightened vulnerability of prisoners, and the risk of transmission of COVID-19 both to and from the community.
 

  1. Minimising harms in prison

The WHO/UNODC/PRI recommendations are reinforced by the recent COVID-19 Transmission in Prison Settings report, commissioned by the UK Ministry of Justice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). The report identifies the negative impact that restrictions have had on prisoners’ mental health and concludes that universal vaccination of prisoners would have a similar impact to the current highly intensive control measures in operation. In other words, increasing the early vaccination of all prisoners and staff would allow for the faster lifting of severe restrictions while still reducing outbreaks within prisons and ensuring the wider control of COVID-19.
 

  1. Higher underlying burden of disease among the prison population

Prisoners are at higher risk of infection and of adverse consequences due to both the poor health profile and the congregated setting in which they are living. In Ireland, there is a documented high prevalence of: mental illness, including severe mental illness; addictions; and homelessness among the prison population. The Traveller community is disproportionately represented. Travellers and homeless people are identified by NIAC as “at significantly increased risk”.
 

  1. Conditions in quarantine

IPRT is concerned that prison quarantine may in some cases amount to de facto solitary confinement. IPRT recalls the CPT in its statement of principles in the context of the coronavirus disease that “protective measures must never result in inhuman or degrading treatment of persons deprived of their liberty”.

Some prisoners in quarantine, including in Cloverhill Prison remand prison, have been deprived of access to a shower for up to 14 days. This not only adversely affects prisoners’ ability to maintain good hygiene but denies them basic entitlements guaranteed by the Prison Rules 2007 and the revised European Prison Rules.

IPRT is concerned by amendments made to the Prison Rules in July 2020 allow a Governor or the Director General to suspend or restrict or modify entitlements to physical exercise, recreation, training and visits for reasons of infectious disease control. These amendments have no sunset clause and received little scrutiny before they were brought into force. IPRT has called on the Minister for Justice to repeal these amendments as soon as possible (and no later than the same time as other COVID-related regulations are repealed). Furthermore, vaccination would reduce the present reliance on quarantine within prisons.
 

  1. Impact of outbreaks on the prison population

The recent COVID-19 outbreak in Mountjoy Prison is the largest prison coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic, with 38 confirmed cases among prisoners. It resulted in the reintroduction of strict infection control measures, impacting up to 815 men and women detained across the campus.  The effect of such an outbreak, and the associated restrictions, on people in prison is profound. Universal vaccination would reduce the apparent reliance on extreme infection control measures to manage potential COVID-19 outbreaks in prison.
 

  1. Implications for rehabilitation and family reintegration

Vaccination of the prison population will facilitate the unwinding of restrictions within prisons and resume access to education, workshops, therapeutic programmes, temporary release, family visits, community supports, and other regimes which support reintegration, and ultimately public safety. IPRT has requested that the Irish Prison Service publish information on its plans for the unwinding of restrictions in prisons, to increase transparency and reassure prisoners and their families.
 

  1. Impact on children with parents in prison

There is no information available on the plans of the Irish Prison Service to resume in-person prison visits, which have been largely suspended since March 2020. Thousands of children in Ireland have not had physical contact with their parent in prison for up to 14 months. A 2021 study on the negative effects of separation from a parent in prison during the pandemic found that children suffered from increasingly poor physical and mental health, which included weight loss, sleeplessness and nightmares, self-harm, increased anxiety and changes in behaviour (including increased anger and aggression). Universal vaccination of prisoners and prison staff would help facilitate progress towards the resumption of in-person visits for children.
 

  1. Transfer of responsibility for prison healthcare to national health service

The current gaps in equivalence of care reinforce a previous IPRT recommendation that governance of prison healthcare should be transferred to the Health Service Executive. This was also a recommendation of the Inspector of Prisons. Governance of prison healthcare by Ministries of Health is increasingly viewed as best practice. IPRT requests that the findings and recommendations of the Prison Health Needs Assessment conducted in 2019/20 are published without delay.
 

  1. Publication of COVID-19 thematic inspection reports

IPRT notes that the Office of the Inspector of Prisons (OIP) has submitted COVID-19 thematic inspection reports on Mountjoy Prison and Cloverhill Prison to the Minister, and requests that these are published without undue delay, along with the 2020 Annual Report of the OIP. 


IPRT continues to engage with all stakeholders to support the vaccine roll-out in prisons in Ireland. Updates on our work on this area, when available, will be shared on iprt.ie/covid-19-in-prisons/

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