Irish Penal Reform Trust

Irish prisons and COVID-19: Proposed Measures

30th April 2020

This submission was originally made to the Irish Prison Service, the Minister for Justice, the Department of Justice and was shared among members of the Oireachtas on 24th and 25th March 2020. It was later updated to reflect international guidance and best practice. A month after the original submission, based on a further review of emerging international literature, we have updated key points as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve.*

In this submission, IPRT outlines a number of proposed measures to be taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to minimise its impact on the whole prison community. 

IPRT welcomes pre-emptive measures taken by the Department of Justice & Equality and the Irish Prison Service to date in response to the pandemic - and in particular, measures taken towards safely reducing the prison population. Nevertheless, IPRT is concerned at the very serious implications that an outbreak of COVID-19 in Irish prisons could have. Further actions will need to be taken to protect the lives, health and wellbeing of people in prison, prison staff, their families in the community and all society.

This submission sets out a number of proposed measures in three areas:

1. Significantly reduce the prison population
Physical distancing, a key measure to prevent the spread of the virus, cannot currently be achieved in Irish prisons due to numbers detained. The prison population must be significantly reduced to minimise sharing of cells and ensure that there are sufficient medical services, and enough staff, to protect the health and safety of everyone. Among measures to consider are: 

  • Identify and safely release specific individuals (those who are elderly, those who are medically vulnerable, and pregnant women), unless doing so would pose a serious risk to the physical safety of the community
  • Lower the number of prison committals, both on remand and for short-sentences
  • Increase standard remission to 33% and enhanced remission of up to 50%
  • Remove the prohibition of temporary release under s.15A (statutory bar for certain cohorts of prisoners)
  • Increase the use of temporary release, including for “grave reasons of a humanitarian nature”
  • Increase the use of community-based sanctions as an alternative to custody; these could be deferred until there is appropriate capacity

Many of these measures have previously been recommended in reports by IPRT, the Strategic Review of Penal Policy, the Oireachtas Justice Committee 2013 and the Oireachtas Justice Committee 2018.


2. Support structured releases from prison

All people being released from prison should have a plan in place, with emphasis on securing accommodation and linking in with services in the community in advance. Existing pressures on housing and current closures of schools, some projects and community services due to COVID-19 will present particular challenges at this time.

  • Screening prior to release is essential, with prisons ensuring that anyone needing to quarantine has a safe place to go on release and that local authorities are notified
  • Multi-agency working will be necessary to ensure the best outcomes for everyone leaving prison
  • Prevent release into homelessness by an investment from Government in manpower and social supports
  • Facilitate access to phone supports, as many community-based services have moved to phone supports in response to COVID-19. Ideally, all people leaving prison should be given a mobile phone on release
  • Provide continued support for people leaving prison


3. Ensure preventative and protective measures within prison

For those men and women in prison who are not released, all steps must be taken to minimise the impact of this crisis, in order to promote the overall safety of prisoners and staff alike. Proposed measures include:

  • Provide clear, up-to-date factual information about the virus and preventative and protective measures to all prisoners and visitors, in various formats (including the use of pictorial information and taking into account language/communication barriers)
  • Introduce screening for everyone entering prison or, at a minimum, check everyone’s temperature in order to reduce the chances of community transmission
  • Testing and results should be as prompt as possible, in order to reduce time spent in quarantine/medical isolation
  • Risk assessments should be carried out in order to identify those most at risk within the prison population
  • Prison hygiene should be provided at an exceptional standard at this time, with the provision of additional soap and regular access to sanitation throughout the prison system
  • Physical distancing should be ensured at all times, including at mealtimes
  • Family contact should be facilitated through increasing the number of phone calls for every prisoner, provision of video link, increasing access to IPS issue mobile phones, and alternative means of communication for prisoners with hearing or other impairments who cannot use phones. Updates on the situation in prisons should continue to be provided on the IPS website
  • Access to psychological support
  • Facilitate as much out-of-cell time as possible, and take all measures available to provide substantial access to activity in cells 
  • Clear procedural safeguards should be in place when imposing medical isolation
  • Definitions such as 'cocooning', 'quarantine' and 'isolation' should be made clear to prisoners and the general public, including a description of what each practice entails
  • Maintain services as in the community e.g. if addiction services are operating in the community through telephones, the same must be provided for in prisons
  • The complaints system should remain accessible to all prisoners
  • Meticulous record-keeping must be maintained during this period to allow for the review of decisions at a later date
  • Data should be published, in an anonymised format, on the number of cases of COVID-19 in a prison setting
  • Prison staff should receive information and training on protecting themselves and others against COVID-19. The health and wellbeing of all staff in prisons is crucial.

More detail on the context and further information on each of the above points is available in the full submission in 'Documents' below.

* The original submission has been revised to reflect additional guidance by the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, PRILA, and others. The version available here is revised as of 30th April 2020.

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.

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