Prison officers' stress at work worsened during pandemic

Prison officers' stress at work worsened during pandemic

Half of the officers responding to the Inspector of Prisons survey reported a rise in the number of prisoners needing mental healthcare or psychology services. Stock picture

Already high stress levels among prison officers have jumped during the pandemic, a survey by the prison watchdog has found.

Half of prison staff also said the mental health of inmates worsened as a result of the restrictions imposed to keep Covid-19 at bay.

A total of 562 prison staff across the prison system and the Irish Prison Service (IPS) headquarters completed the survey which was carried out by the Inspector of Prisons between April and May of this year.

The survey complemented a series of Covid-19 inspections in each of the jails.

“Stress levels at work increased during the pandemic, while the quality of life decreased,” the report said.

It found that while one in four respondents (25%) reported “high stress levels” at work prior to the pandemic, this increased to three in five (59%) during the pandemic. The report also found:

  • Half of officers reported they were unable to maintain social distance when working with prisoners in the general population, with just under half saying they could do so when working with prisoners in quarantine and isolation;
  • Two out of three respondents felt that the majority of staff strictly adhered to social distancing guidelines;
  • A majority (63%) of those who had contracted Covid reported “moderate” to “high” levels of support from the organisation, with the remainder (37%) viewing the support received as “low”;
  • A majority (57%) felt safe at work saying the IPS had implemented reasonable infection control measures, such as screening at the facility entrance, and staggering smaller cohorts of prisoners during out-of-cell time;
  • Almost half of the respondents (48%) agreed that healthcare staff were not adequately prepared to cope with the increase in the number of prisoners requiring mental healthcare.

The survey found that seven out of ten officers felt that the restrictions on out-of-cell time were a “proportionate response” to prevent the spread of the virus.

Half of the respondents agreed that the restrictions negatively impacted sentence management and parole reports. The report said the restrictions and policies were clear to three out of four of the officers surveyed. 

The three measures identified by respondents as key to preventing Covid-19 infections among prison staff were: regular cleaning and disinfecting of staff common areas; cessation of physical visits to prisons; and testing and quarantine for all prison committals.

Seven out of ten respondents agreed that the personal protective equipment (PPE) provided by the IPS offered reasonable protection against the virus.

Concern about inmates' mental health

Half of officers reported increases in the number of prisoners who required mental healthcare or psychology services. In addition, nearly half of respondents did not think the prison was equipped to handle the “mental health requirements of prisoners”.

Almost half of officers said the educational provision was “inadequate” over the course of the pandemic, though four out of ten felt it was adequate, considering public health measures.

Three out of four agreed that efforts made by the IPS to compensate for the suspension of in-person family visits through telephone and video calls had been adequate.

Most officers (84%) said the use of in-cell telephones and video links should continue after the pandemic.

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