Irish Penal Reform Trust

IPRT statement on the first prisoner death due to COVID-19

17th November 2021

The Irish Prison Service has today confirmed (17.11.2021) the first prisoner death due to COVID-19.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) would like to extend its condolences to the deceased’s family, friends and peers in prison, and to the prison staff and healthcare staff involved in his care. Our thoughts are with those who are grieving.

This will undoubtedly be a worrying time for people in prison, and for their families outside. IPRT would like to underscore how vital it is that the Irish Prison Service remains in regular communication with people in prison, offering accurate and timely information, as well as appropriate avenues for people in prison to raise any concerns or questions they might have arising from this tragic news. It is also important that the IPS meets its commitment to inform families immediately if their family member in prison is confirmed positive with COVID-19, and provide details and assurance about their care.

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Rates of infection from COVID-19 in prison have been relatively low. However, more can be done to protect the physical and mental health of men and women in prison at this time. In particular, it is essential that prisoners are included among priority groups in the national vaccine booster programme. 

After poor communication and lengthy delays in the initial roll-out of vaccines to people in prison (despite the HSPC confirming in 2020 that prisons are residential institutions) the State now has another opportunity to deliver equitable care to people in prisons with booster doses. The Department of Health must act on advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has recommended that age-based cut-offs for vaccination should be lowered for people in prison.  Specifically, the WHO clearly stated that where Member States decide on vaccines on basis of age, “the cut-off for the elderly band should be lowered to 50 years [for the prison population] because of the poor health status of people in detention and the ageing effect of prison itself”.

This is supported by decades of research on the characteristics of people in prison and the effects of the prison environment. This would mean that anyone aged over 50 in prison should have been eligible for a booster at the same time older cohorts were receiving boosters in the community. With boosters now being rolled-out to all residents in long-term healthcare facilities, irrespective of age, clear reasons should be given for any exclusion of prisons from this plan

*Edit 19th Nov: IPRT acknowledges a statement from the Irish Prison Service (18.11.2021) confirming that vaccination clinics are continuing across the prison estate, with a third dose booster being offered to vulnerable prisoners, "in line with community guidance". While it is welcome that these prisoners have access to booster doses, the vaccination of people in prison should not be following the same criteria as the general community, for the reasons detailed above. We look forward to further updates on the situation.*

IPRT has been calling for a safe reduction of the prison population throughout the pandemic and the current circumstances must lead to a renewed impetus on revisiting who is eligible for early release, or indeed, who is sent to prison in the first place. The Department of Justice and Irish Prison Service must re-examine ways to release those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. This decision-making must be guided by an assessment of immediate public safety concerns and individual health needs. We urge that mechanisms for both early release and alternatives to prison are used to the greatest possible extent.

At the end of last month (October 2021), there were 370 men and women in prison who were sentenced to custody for less than 12 months (132 of whom were sentenced to less than 6 months) and over 800 people held on remand or for trial. All criminal justice stakeholders – including the judiciary, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service and An Garda Síochána – need to collaborate to ensure that anyone who could safely serve their sentence in the community is considered for any opportunities to do so.

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

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