Progress in the
Penal System (PIPS)

1.1 Irish penal system response to Covid-19 (2020)

On 11th March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic.[8] It swiftly turned its attention to prison settings, publishing its guidance Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention[9] on 15th March 2020. This identified people in prison as especially vulnerable to the virus for two primary reasons:

1. Living in close proximity of each other in confined conditions and over prolonged lengths of time was a situation described by the WHO as one that may “act as a source of infection, amplification and spread of infectious diseases within and beyond prisons.”[10]

2. The prison population was identified as a group with poorer levels of health and underlying health conditions than the general population, making them more vulnerable to the disease:

In addition to demographic characteristics, people in prisons typically have a greater underlying burden of disease and worse health conditions than the general population, and frequently face greater exposure to risks such as smoking, poor hygiene and weak immune defence due to stress, poor nutrition, or prevalence of coexisting diseases, such as blood-borne viruses, tuberculosis and drug use disorders.”[11]

The WHO called on governments to take a whole- of-government and whole-of-society approach in their responses, outlining that the transmission of the disease within prisons would further amplify the risks associated with the pandemic. This point was reinforced by the UN ODC, which stated:

“The scenario of a rapidly increasing transmission of COVID-19 within prison systems will have an amplifying effect on the epidemic within the general public.”[12]

In Ireland, emergency response planning by the Irish Prison Service was already underway. In the final week of February 2020, an Emergency Response Planning Team, with expertise in the areas of operations, healthcare and infection control, had been established and assigned the task of stopping the spread of the virus in prison settings.[13] Refresher training in infections control and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) was commenced.

An early action taken by the Department of Justice and the Irish Prison Service was to bring about a 10% reduction in the prison population through the granting of temporary release. On 11 March 2020, there were 4,235 persons in custody.[14] This was reduced to 3,807 by 10 April 2020.[15] The reduction in numbers allowed for greater physical distancing in prisons and supported an effective infections control regime. The practice of ‘cocooning’

was introduced in prisons in line with public health advice.[16] Cocooning in prison meant that vulnerable prisoners reduced their face-to-face interaction with other prisoners and staff, and stayed in their cells for a longer number of hours.

The Irish Prison Service introduced a number of innovations to reduce the impact of restrictions. These included: the rollout of video calls as a substitute for suspended prison visits;[17] in-cell telephones for prisoners restricted due to cocooning, isolation and quarantine; tele-psychology services; an in-cell television channel to provide information to prisoners; provision of materials and activities in-cell; and a new An Post Billpay card to allow families to lodge money in prisoners’ accounts fo ruse in tuck shops.[18]

Longer periods between sign-in were provided for prisoners on temporary release in order to reduce footfall in and out of the prisons. Changes were also required of the Probation Service. For example, probation supervision was mainly undertaken through telephone contact and those at high risk of offending were prioritised.[19] Digital tools were used to enhance probation practices.[20]

The role that the Care and Rehabilitation Directorate, Executive Clinical Lead, and Head of Infections Control played in bringing a preventative public health approach in prisons deserves particular recognition, along with the prison staff, management and prisoners who worked together to keep prisons largely free from Covid-19. Nevertheless, the protection of physical health cannot be at the expense of mental health or human rights. Systems should be set up so that they meet minimum human rights standards at all times, especially in a time of global emergency.


Irish Penal Reform Trust


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