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'They don’t even have the capacity to keep everyone in single cells': Concerns over potential Covid-19 spread in prisons

The Irish Penal Reform Trust has said that overcrowded prisons make it harder to control the spread of the viruses.

Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.
Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.
Image: Shutterstock/Derick Hudson

CONCERNS HAVE BEEN raised about the readiness of Irish prisons to respond to the spread of Covid-19. 

Last night, four new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the Republic of Ireland, bringing the total number of cases here to six. 

The Irish Penal Reform Trust says it is concerned that overcrowded Irish prisons could face difficulties in containing the virus were it to be detected in a prisoner. 

As of 3 March 2020, there are 4,200 people in Irish prisons – a number that is high by Irish standards with an increase of nearly 600 inmates since 2017.

Fíona Ní Chinnéide, the Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said that managing infectious diseases in prisons was a constant challenge for prison authorities. 

“In overcrowded prison conditions the likelihood of transmission of anything is going to be higher,” she said. 

Ní Chinnéide said she was particularly concerned because Irish prisons don’t have the capacity to keep everyone in single cells – possibly making attempts to contain the spread of Covid-19 difficult. 

As of January, 47% of Irish prisoners were in shared cells. 

“How they’re going to contain an outbreak is a real concern, because they don’t even have the capacity to keep everyone in single cells,” she said. 

Ní Chinnéide stressed that as most prisons are environments where there are a lot of elderly people and individuals with poor health generally, prisoners could be particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.

She referred to the phenomenon of “accelerating ageing” in prison populations, where people older than 55 are often seen as “elderly”. 

In practice, that means that an inmate in their 50s might have the physical appearance and health issues of someone at least 10 years older. 

Generally too, prisoner populations often have poor health and underlying conditions – with many inmates coming from poorer backgrounds and having experiences of addiction and homelessness. 

This means that prisoners could be especially vulnerable to Covid-19, especially in an environment where there is a movement of staff, visitors and other individuals in and out of the prison. 

Infectious diseases often spread easier in prisons, with Hepatitis C, HIV and tuberculosis all posing a significant risk to inmates. 

In 2014, a World Health Organisation report on prisons globally pointed to overcrowding, delays in diagnosis and a limited access to soap and water contributing to a greater risk of infection among prisoners.

A spokesperson for the Irish Prison Service said that it is “currently developing contingency plans specifically for the management of Covid-19″. 

These plans are still being compiled, with preparations under way since early February. 

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The spokesperson said that the prison service “has worked closely and continues to work closely with the HSE”. 

The plans, they said, would be in line with “best international practice”.

Ultimate responsibility for the healthcare of patients in Irish prisons lies with the Irish Prison Service, not the HSE. 

The HSE has a limited role in healthcare provision in Irish prisons, with the vast majority of services provided by the Irish Prison Service.

The healthcare of prisoners has come in for repeated criticism in the last decade. In 2014, a Council of Europe report found that “doctors working in prisons appeared disconnected from the national healthcare service and prison health-care did not receive the necessary management support”. 

Another report in 2017 criticised “deficiencies” in the healthcare facilities on offer to prisoners. 

The report, compiled by then-prisons inspector Judge Michael Reilly, called for the HSE to take charge of prisoner healthcare. 

Healthcare in prisons, he said,  “seems to operate on an ad hoc basis with no special regard for the needs of the different cohorts of prisoners in the individual prisons”. 

Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to expose the reality of the Irish prison system, including overcrowding, attacks and access to medical treatment. Read more about the proposal, and how you can support it, here.

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