14th December 2021
The first international review exploring how prisoners and prison staff are included in national vaccination plans has found that Ireland performs well in terms of our prison vaccination rate when compared to many countries. However, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) is today (14.12.2021) warning that news of the comparatively high vaccination rate among prisoners in Ireland masks the reality that ongoing COVID-19 restrictions in Irish prisons are having a severely detrimental impact on the mental health, family contact and access to rehabilitative regimes of those imprisoned.
The new report, COVID-19 vaccinations for prison populations and staff: Report on global scan, conducted by Penal Reform International and Harm Reduction International, found that Ireland is one of only 20 countries internationally where more than 80% of the prison population had received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccination by the end of September this year. Despite the high rates of vaccination, the lack of clarity and transparency of prison vaccination plans in Ireland comes under scrutiny in the global review. For example, initial national vaccination plans in Ireland contained no explicit mention of prisons.
Commenting on Ireland’s performance in the report, IPRT Executive Director, Fíona Ní Chinnéide stated:
“The rate of vaccination in Irish prisons is comparatively high, thanks to the significant efforts of prison staff working with the Irish Red Cross prisoner members to engage and inform people in prison. However, for the approximately 85% of men and women in prison who have been vaccinated, the “vaccine bonus” is not being felt. Access to out-of-cell time, education and training, family visits and rehabilitative services continues to be limited almost two years into the pandemic.
“The Minister for Justice acknowledged in the Dáil in recent weeks that keeping people in prison under severe lockdown is not the way forward because we must “live with COVID-19”. We welcome this. We cannot accept these ongoing restrictions in prison as part of life with COVID-19.”
While IPRT welcomes the work that has been done to achieve the high vaccination rate in Irish prisons, vaccination is only one metric by which Ireland’s performance can be measured. Favourable vaccination rates should not distract from the need for additional measures to meet the rights of people in prison while managing the risks of COVID-19. Such measures require creative, solution-focused thinking and should include facilitating access to early release mechanisms and progressing people to open prisons where appropriate.
Ms Ní Chinnéide continued:
“The situation in Ireland’s prisons was addressed as an emergency early in the pandemic, with considerable efforts applied to safely reduce the prison population. However, it is still an emergency, and the same level of urgency needs to be applied now.
“Yesterday, there were 80 spaces available across Ireland’s two open prisons. Open prisons play an important role in rehabilitation, and maximising this resource would improve access to rehabilitative regimes for the people assessed as suitable for the move. It would also make it easier to reduce and manage outbreaks of COVID-19 within closed prisons, and free up resources to facilitate greater access to services in those prisons.”
IPRT calls on all criminal justice agencies to place a renewed focus on reducing the prison population to the greatest extent possible. Efforts made in March/April 2020 (when the prison population was reduced by approximately 10% within one month) show that this is possible when the commitment is there.
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NOTES TO EDITOR
Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.