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An empty prison cell corridor inside the Dochas centre.
Penal Reform

Report claims pandemic ban on prison visits and lack of psychological supports impacting prisoner health

The annual Irish Penal Reform Trust’s progress in the penal system report was published today.

PRISONER VISITS AFFECTED by Covid-19 lockdowns and a lack of psychological supports for inmates must be a key concern for prison management, the Irish Penal Reform Trust has said. 

The IPRT’s assessment of progress in the penal system, or PIPS report for 2021, said the impact of Covid-19 isolation was being felt among the prison population. 

“Many have said that the crisis that comes after the Covid-19 pandemic will be that of a mental health crisis. 

“The impact of Covid-19 on the mental health of prisoners has yet to be fully understood, however, this is a key concern raised by prisoner family members. 

“During the first three months of the Covid-19 pandemic (12 March 2020 to 29 June 2020), provisional figures show there were 36 reported incidents of self-harm across the estate. Of these 33 were among the male prison population and three among the female prison population,” the report said. 

The IPRT said there is a lack of recognition and support for children and families affected by imprisonment. Physical visits were suspended from December 2020 until July 2021.

It noted that during the Covid-19 crisis alternative methods of contact were arranged including in-cell phones and video calls – but that there was a significant reduction, estimated at 80%, in visits of children to prisoners.

When the visits recommenced rules were set out of one child only being allowed to visit with parents. The IPRT said that this adversely impacted families who then were forced to choose which child.

The report found that at the outset of the pandemic, the Irish Prison Service introduced measures to support the mental health needs of prisoners in the absence of face-to-face psychology supports.

This included tele-psychology, which consisted of 20-minute telephone sessions. A national telephone line was also established to allow prisoners access to some services.

“A total of 550 referrals were received from tele-psychology between 12 March 2020 and 30 June 2020. A total of 891 calls were made to the national helpline to contact chaplaincy, psychology or psychiatry services between 11 April and 30 June, of which 135 were made to prison psychology services.

“There were 180 prisoners seen in a mental health clinic in March 2020, 172 in April 2020 and 203 in May 2020,” the report added. 

The report noted that the Office of the Inspector of Prisons and Maynooth University also called for shorter and longer-term plans to support all people in custody and staff, as prisons and the country transition back to normal post Covid-19.

It added, however, “considering that, for some, reduced restrictions may heighten their anxiety”.

The IPRT called for proposals for a new Task Force on mental health, addictions and imprisonment should be expedited.

“Its programme of work should include a review of gaps in mental health law, including an examination of the classification of personality disorders. It should also identify clear diversion pathways for people with an acute mental health need to access an appropriate service,” the report recommended.

It also called on the Irish Prison Service to publish data on the number of people awaiting transfer to the Central Mental Hospital and the lengths of time awaiting transfer.

While it also asked that prisoners experiencing mental health difficulties should be offered a range of appropriate non-psychiatric responses such as access to psychology, counselling, social care and survivor-led peer support.

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