The Irish Prison Service (IPS) says that no hospitalisations were needed as a result of COVID-19 in its prisons last year.
In its annual report, Caron McCaffery (Director General) says that the service managed three outbreaks during 2020 – in the Limerick, Midlands and Wheatfield prisons.
“The service avoided the situation of serious outbreaks, which could have resulted in significant morbidity and mortality, as sadly happened in other jurisdictions,” she writes.
The report shows that the IPS spent €7 million on measures aimed at preventing COVID-19 outbreaks last year.
Prison committals down 30%
COVID-19 restrictions had an impact on prison numbers last year, reversing a previous trend, with the number of people sent to prison falling almost 30% to 6,340.
This was mainly due to a reduction in activity in the courts throughout the year. Public-health restrictions – such as the closure of non-essential retail and hospitality – also led to a reduction in some types of crime.
The average number of prisoners in custody peaked at 4,108 in February last year, before subsequently declining by more than 10% to a low of 3,684 in September, and then levelling off.
As well as fewer committals to prison, a managed programme of temporary release from March to May – a response to managing the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks – also contributed to the drop in custody figures.
Innovations will stay
The service’s annual report says that many of the innovations introduced to mitigate the impact of the pandemic will be retained in the future.
The IPS says that, while physical visits to prisons have now resumed, many prisoners have chosen to continue with virtual visits. The report also shows that the number of prisoners appearing in court by video-link jumped from just under 3,800 in 2019 to almost 13,417 last year.
The report shows that the average annual cost of an available, staffed prison space during 2020 was €80,445, a 6.7% increase compared with 2019. It points out, however, that this was due to a number of once-off factors – including pandemic measures and an additional pay period for prison officers.
“The efforts of the Irish Prison Service to control the spread of COVID-19 in prisons over the past 18 months have been phenomenal,” said Hildegarde Naughton (Minister of State for Civil and Criminal Justice, pictured).
Speaking after a meeting with IPS management at Castlerea Prison, she also said that the initial findings of a review of policy options for prison and penal reform would be published in the autumn.
Remand figures concern IPRT
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) said that the report had provided an insight into the hard work done by the IPS to keep people in prisons safe from COVID-19, but it added that an over-reliance on remand persisted during the year.
It pointed to figures in the report showing that, in December 2020, 11.5% of all remand prisoners had been on remand for a year or more, compared with 6% in December 2019.
The organisation also called on the Minister for Justice to publish all completed COVID-19 prison inspection reports, and urged the IPS to publish quarterly prison census data for 2021.
The IPRT described the lack of such data during the pandemic as “a major gap in accountability”, adding that “several” inspection reports had been submitted to the minister by the Office of the Inspector of Prisons.
Molly Joyce (IPRT Legal and Public Affairs Manager) also said that action must also be taken to mitigate against the negative effects of long-term restrictions in prisons.