Irish Penal Reform Trust

Vaccine roll-out in prisons must be met with easing of restrictions

14th June 2021

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) notes that wide vaccine roll-out begun in Irish prisons last week. The Irish Prison Service confirmed to IPRT on the afternoon of 11th June 2021 that mass vaccination commenced on a prison-wide basis and is expected to be completed in all 12 prisons within four weeks.

Vaccination of the prison population, along with prison staff, should 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.

The heightened duty of care to protect the lives of individuals deprived of their liberty by the State means prisoners should have been among the priority groups for vaccines and not last in line. The pandemic impact has been incredibly tough on men and women in prison and has been experienced as additional punishment by both prisoners and their families outside. The goodwill by prisoners working alongside staff to keep everyone safe, despite not knowing when they would be vaccinated, should be commended.

IPRT remains 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. At a minimum, the current vaccine roll-out must reduce the present reliance on exercising these amendments to manage potential COVID-19 outbreaks in prison.

The May 2021 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 across the campus. The effect of such an outbreak, and the associated restrictions, on people in prison is profound. Families told us prisoners in the Progression Unit on Mountjoy campus were confined to their cells for more than 23 hours a day, with no access to showers, exercise, education, or fresh air – reportedly for 3 to 5 consecutive days. Vaccination will be central to ending the use of these measures on a population who have already been “disproportionately impacted” by restrictions.

No further details have been made public about how vaccines will be offered to new committals who are not yet fully vaccinated after this mass vaccination is complete. Given the flow of prisoners through the prison system, a clear strategy backed up by the necessary resources for ensuring continuity of care between prison and the community, and vice versa, is needed. This should address how first and second doses (if applicable) of the vaccine will be tracked as well as the plan for communicating with prisoners and families about the vaccine roll-out.

IPRT looks forward to more information on the vaccine roll-out in prisons being shared publicly by the Irish Prison Service, the HSE, and other relevant stakeholders.
 

IPRT has made the following calls on the Minister and Department of Justice:

  • Publish prison inspection reports: Publish all COVID-19 thematic inspection reports submitted to the Minister by the Office of the Inspector of prisons (Mountjoy and Cloverhill)
  • Prison Health Review: Publish the findings and recommendations of the prison Healthcare Needs Assessment undertaken in 2019/20 without delay.
  • Prison Rules: Repeal amendments made to the Prison Rules in July 2020 that allow a Governor or the Director General to suspend, restrict or modify entitlements to physical exercise, recreation, training and visits for reasons of infectious disease control. This should be done as soon as possible, and no later than the same time as other COVID-related regulations are repealed.


Resources:

  • IPRT’s Irish Prisons and COVID-19: One Year On briefing, published in April 2021, outlined the steps required to meet the human rights obligations and address the effects of COVID-19 on people in prison. While there has been some progress, there has been little action on the majority of these steps.
  • In 2021, IPRT wrote to the Minister for Justice, 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, Director General of the Irish Prison Service, CEO of the HSE and the Prison Officer’s Association to outline relevant concerns as they relate to vaccination of people in prison. See overviews of our contact here (June) and here (April).
  • 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.

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

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