Justice report

Dealing with Covid-19 in the Irish Prison Service

2020 and 2021 are years that will live long in our memories for many reasons. The past 19 months have been the most extraordinary and challenging for all the citizens of our country and for communities across the globe. We have been living in unprecedented times and faced challenges like never before, writes Irish Prison Service Director General Caron McCaffrey.

Coronavirus, or Covid-19 as we now know it, had a significant impact on the criminal justice system and presented huge challenges for the Irish Prison Service as the spread of the virus within the close confines of a prison could have devastating consequences for those who live and work in that environment. Unfortunately, we saw the shocking impact the virus had on some other prison systems and closer to home, in our nursing homes. Thankfully, due to our experience of managing infectious diseases, and resourced with many skilled and competent experts, we were well equipped to meet these challenges head on.

Our experts began planning for Covid-19 at a very early stage. Working together as a team, our aim was to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in our prisons, detect early any possible case and contain any possible outbreak should it occur. The response to this crisis has been a whole-of-service response from management, staff, service providers and prisoners who have all worked together in collaboration.

The success of the Irish Prison Service in managing the Covid-19 pandemic and keeping the prisons mostly free from infection, throughout 2020 and 2021, has been due to the combined efforts of staff and prisoners across the estate. As an essential service, the Irish Prison Service has maintained both its core custodial and security operations and other services, to varying degrees, in line with the various restriction levels in place as set out by the Government and the public health authorities.

From the outset, our response was guided by the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), and consistent with the prison specific guidance for the management of Covid-19 issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in March 2020, and guidance of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT).

At an early stage we established the Emergency Response Planning Team (ERPT) consisting of senior staff with skills and experience in key areas including operations, healthcare, human resource management and infection control. The ERPT was tasked with identifying and issuing instruction on the necessary actions with the aim of:

  • Blocking the spread of Covid-19 into a prison setting
  • Early detection of any possible case of Covid-19 in a prisoner or staff member; and
  • Prevention of the spread of Covid-19, should a case be confirmed.

The Minister for Justice approved actions to reduce the number of prisoners in March 2020 to support a more effective infection control regime, including greater physical distancing and cocooning. These included the granting of temporary release (TR) to low-risk prisoners, who were assessed on a case-by-case basis.

“Critical to our success was the development of a world class contact tracing system to allow for the early identification of possible cases and permit their immediate isolation. This system has been recognised by the WHO in a published paper as a model of international best practice and concluded that a partnership approach with development of prison-led contact tracing teams can provide an effective mechanism for contract tracing of Covid-19 cases within the prison setting.”

Also critical to our success was the development of a world class contact tracing system to allow for the early identification of possible cases and permit their immediate isolation. This system has been recognised by the WHO in a published paper as a model of international best practice and concluded that a partnership approach with development of prison-led contact tracing teams can provide an effective mechanism for contract tracing of Covid-19 cases within the prison setting.

A wide range of innovations were introduced to mitigate against the impact of the pandemic. Many of these innovations have the potential to improve service delivery into the future especially in our healthcare, service provision, financial and operational areas and will result in significant benefits for both prisoners and their families. Some innovations introduced during the pandemic include:

  • The provision of tele-services including tele-psychology and tele-chaplaincy across the service;
  • The introduction of virtual family visits, increased use of video-link for court appearances and virtual in-reach service provision;
  • The introduction of electronic funds transfer (EFT) systems for private prisoner funds
  • The development of an in-cell prisoner TV channel to support the provision of information and learning; and
  • The introduction of in-cell telephony to permit contact from family and prison services.

As a service we were at all times very conscious of the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on prisoners and I must acknowledge their understanding of the actions we have taken on their behalf. We were always conscious of the impact the restrictions had on them and on their mental health. We continued to maintain the provision of psychology, chaplaincy, and addiction services throughout the pandemic through the provision of a dedicated call facility and the use of video-link. When possible, we reinstated face-to-face services across the estate as restrictions were reduced.

We needed the support of prisoners to keep our prison community Covid-19 free. We communicated regularly with those in our care to ensure that they were informed of the actions that were being taken, particularly around the restriction of services and of visit to prisons. The Red Cross Volunteers played a pivotal role in communicating with prisoners and generating buy in from them with regard to infection control measures. They produced a weekly prisoner newsletter in conjunction with the Education Service and were involved in making awareness videos on important issues. They played a hugely important role on the provision of information including information on the Covid-19 vaccination which many prisoners were concerned about.

I cannot give enough credit to our staff for their efforts during this pandemic. Our staff have always shown a willingness to meet challenges when needed and they did again during this national crisis. Staff flexibility was critical to our Covid-19 response with many operational staff taking on new roles across the Service. In 2020, over 100 staff were redeployed to new Covid-19 tasks in areas such as contact tracing, infection control and courts video link.

Our Healthcare Teams, like their colleagues in the healthcare settings and hospitals across the country, worked night and day to keep people safe. The pressure on them was immense, especially during outbreak situations. They also oversaw the roll out of the Covid-19 vaccination program in prisons which was a monumental task. This involved delivery of the vaccine to over 3,500 prisoners spread across 12 locations across the country. The administration of the vaccine has been critical in allowing the Service to unwind Covid-19 restrictions and see a return to some normal regime activities including the return of physical visits.

The efforts of our staff have been widely acknowledged and the Irish Prison Service was recognised by the Civil Excellence Awards in December 2020 for our combined efforts to keep Covid-19 out of our prisons. We have just been informed that we have again been shortlisted in the 2021 Awards for our efforts to continue to support prisoners and their families during the pandemic.

As we move towards the end of 2021, our main focus is on unwinding the remaining Covid-19 measures in a way that continues to keep all those who live and work in our prisons safe.

We look forward to the post-Covid-19 era with all our key stakeholders and I truly believe that our experiences over the past 20 months will make us a stronger, more efficient, and more unified Prison Service. This will lead to better service delivery for people in our care and their families which will deliver lower levels of reoffending, making our communities safer.

T: 043 333 5100
E: dgoffice@irishprisons.ie
W: www.irishprisons.ie
Twitter: @irishprisons

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