In a move that is likely to anger families and groups that have campaigned for cards, Michael Donnellan, the IPS director general, confirmed that medical cards will be automatically issued to all prisoners once they are released.
The process has already begun at Cork Prison, where Mr Donnellan said they were “going to test the system for the next few weeks, but it is going nationwide”.
He said arrangements had been made whereby the prison service will notify the HSE when an inmate is being released, as well as supplying the address at which the prisoner intends to reside.
“So on the day they get home, there should be a medical card there for them,” said Mr Donnellan.
Earlier this year, a draft document on the development of the HSE’s centralised medical card unit said between 30,000 and 50,000 medical cards would be cut in 2016 due to more people getting a job, as well as reviews of eligibility and retention criteria. However, those cuts will not affect the prison population.
Mr Donnellan said the need for medical cards for prisoners was a “huge issue, especially for people on methadone or on medication”. It would mean they now had the ability to access medication on leaving prison.
He said there were “about 1,000 prisoners on methadone every morning”, or about a quarter of the entire prison population.
Giving medical cards to every prisoner on release day would not cost the State, he said, because a lot of inmates were on a level of income that entitled them to a medical card anyway.
“So there is no cost here other than giving people their entitlement,” he said.
Earlier this week, it emerged that the prison service is to spend almost €550,000 over the next three years on clothing for inmates.
Asked what would happen with the large number of prisoners who find themselves homeless and therefore with no forwarding address, Mr Donnellan said: “The reality is in very exceptional cases, not in Cork but in Dublin, some people have to be released onto the street, and that’s a problem.”
Mr Donnellan was speaking at Narrowing the Disconnect: The Ethics of Supporting Desistance from Crime, organised by the Cork Alliance Centre, a support group for people released from prison.
He also spoke about making prisons “less security- orientated” and said they were in talks with “an eminent architect” from the UK about improving prisons, “not just new builds but existing prisons”, starting with the Dóchas Centre women’s prison in Dublin.
They had no plans for the old Cork Prison he said, which had been suggested as possible accommodation for homeless people.
Cork Prison governor Pat Dawson said it was not fit for prisoners “so why would you put homeless in there?”.
Mr Donnellan said the old prison would be mothballed: “It’s not fit for purpose, the roof is leaking, there is no fire protection, it’s a dungeon, we moved out of it because it’s a dungeon.”
The new prison, which is twice the size, did not require additional staff.
Asked if there were plans to get rid of annualised hours on foot of a recent finding by the Comptroller & Auditor General that it had failed to make any substantial savings for the State when it replaced overtime, Mr Donnellan said “not at the moment”.
The old prison, the site of the execution of 1916 patriot Thomas Kent, is open to the public this evening after 5pm as part of Culture Night.