Penal reformers have said that prison authorities need to release more than 200 inmates if they want to minimise the threat from Covid-19 in the country’s jails.
Last Friday, the Irish Prison Service proposed to release early at least 200 prisoners, who they stressed did not pose a threat to the public, to reduce prison numbers and avoid an outbreak of the virus.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust said the virus would have “devastating consequences” given overcrowding levels in many prisons, the high number of older people incarcerated and the poor health among the population.
In addition to the 4,200 men and women currently detained in prisons, it said that 3,300 people work in the system, in addition to the families of both prisoners and staff.
IPRT executive director Fíona Ní Chinnéide said both the Department of Justice and the Irish Prison Service have recognised the serious threat from Covid-19 and have announced steps to reduce the prison population.
But she said the IPRT remains concerned at the very serious implications that current overcrowding will have if the virus breaks out and is engaging with the IPS.
Ms Ní Chinnéide said: “The release of 200 people serving sentences of less than 12 months for non-violent sentences, while welcome, will only bring the population back to January 2020 levels. More needs to be done.”
She said IPRT has consistently raised the issue of increasing prison numbers and chronic overcrowding.
She said there were 3,149 operational cells, but that the population was near 4,300 on 12 March last, with 60 inmates sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
IPS figures show that of the 3,999 prisoners in custody on January 14 last:
*2,107 were in single cells
*1,433 were in double cells (including 412 in the Midlands, 254 in Cork and 12 in Limerick Female);
* 384 were in triple cells (including 303 in Cloverhill Remand Prison, 27 in Midlands and 15 in Limerick Female);
* 75 were in four person cells (although 47 of these are in unlocked dorms in Shelton, with 20 in the Midlands and eight in Cloverhill)
The cells in the new Cork Prison are designed as doubles and the Cloverhill cells are designed as triples, but the latter has a high turnover of inmates, as well as high numbers with mental health issues. The Midlands Prison has a relatively high number of older prisoners.
“It is clear that significant further actions must be taken to achieve a safe level of occupancy in the prisons,” said Ms Ní Chinnéide.
She said this was more urgent in the current context of Covid-19 given the high number older people, estimated as 15% of the sentenced population, the higher prevalence of poor health among the prison population and the existing burden on prison healthcare services.
“An outbreak of Covid-19 in our prisons would have devastating consequences for the community,” she said.
"Many men and women in prison have poorer health and complex medical needs, and are more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill with COVID-19. In particular, physically frail prisoners who do not present any risk to public safety, should be released to appropriate accommodation."