15th March 2020
The COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented national public health situation for our communities and all society. This includes the 4,200 men and women currently detained in Irish prisons, the 3,300 people who work in our prisons, and the families of both prisoners and staff on the outside.
The Department of Justice & Equality and the Irish Prison Service have recognised the serious threat that a potential outbreak of COVID-19 presents to the prison system, and announced that steps are being taken to reduce the prison population. The Irish Prison Service has previously communicated the actions it has taken to date to mitigate against the risk of COVID-19 entering the prison system, outlining the human rights imperative alongside public health concerns. We welcome this.
Nevertheless, IPRT is concerned at the very serious implications that current overcrowding will have should an outbreak of COVID-19 occur in Irish prisons. We are engaging directly with all decision-makers on how a significant reduction of the prison population can be safely achieved. The release of 200 people serving sentences of less than 12 months for non-violent sentences, while welcome, will only bring the population back to January 2020 levels. More needs to be done.
IPRT has consistently raised the issue of increasing prison numbers and chronic crowding in prisons, the urgent need to reduce the number of people detained in prison safely, and the importance of ensuring access to single-cell accommodation for all prisoners. The number of usable operational cells (of differing capacities) across the estate is 3,149 (IPRT 2019). The prison population was near 4,300 the week of 12th March 2020, with over 60 people sleeping on floors in prisons. It is clear that significant further actions must be taken to achieve a safe level of occupancy in the prisons.
This is more urgent in the current context of COVID-19, given the high number of older people (15% of sentenced prisoners), the higher prevalence of poor health among prison populations, and the existing burden on prison healthcare services (IPRT 2019). An outbreak of COVID-19 in our prisons would have devastating consequences for the community.
IPRT has made a number of proposals to the Minister for Justice & Equality to consider towards the safe reduction of the prison population, drawing on previous recommendations of IPRT 2012, Oireachtas Committee on Justice 2013, Strategic Review of Penal Policy 2014 and the Oireachtas Committee on Justice 2018. IPRT is clear that any decision-making on eligibility of prisoners for release must be guided by assessment of immediate public safety concerns and individual health needs, and not categories of offence.
All people being released from prison should have a structured plan in place, with emphasis on securing accommodation and linking in with services in the community in advance, in order to promote the best outcomes for everyone. However, the reality is that existing pressures on housing and current closures of schools, some projects and community services due to COVID-19 prevention measures will present challenges at this time.
We are also acutely aware that families outside prison will be extremely concerned about their loved ones inside prison at this time. Upwards of 6,000 children have a parent in prison in Ireland. We understand that the Irish Prison Service is taking steps to minimise the impact of internal control measures due to COVID-19 risks, towards promoting the overall safety of prisoners and staff alike. We welcome this, and IPRT has requested the following measures are prioritised:
The COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented situation. The dedication of frontline prison staff, prison medical staff and prison chaplains to providing safe custody, including at the most challenging times such as this is now, must be acknowledged. IPRT supports the actions taken to date towards prevention and minimising the impact of this crisis on the prison community. We know that more significant action will need to be taken in the coming days, weeks and even months. As it is an evolving situation, we will continue to update our position and information as the situation unfolds.
Fíona Ní Chinnéide, Executive Director, Irish Penal Reform Trust