Less than 2% out of the 3,500 people who work at jails in Portlaoise and elsewhere around the country caught Covid-19, the Leinster Express has learned.
While neither the Irish Prison Service (IPS) nor the Department of Health would confirm the figure it is understood that 50 employees contracted the virus since the pandemic hit Ireland in February.
With prisons due to recommence for prison visits on Monday, the IPS was not in a position to provide the figure as it said all details on confirmed cases are provided to the health authorities for publication.
However, it was in a position to confirm how many staff had to self-isolate and the up to date incidence among prisoners.
“Due to the contingency measures introduced by the management and staff of the Irish Prison Service we can confirm that, at present, there have been no confirmed prisoner cases of Covid-19 within Irish Prisons. We can confirm, from 06 April 2020 to date, our Contact Tracing Team has identified 249 suspect cases among prison staff which were required to self-isolate but who subsequently largely tested negative. The decision to confirm and/or release details of a positive test for Covid-19 among prison staff is a matter for the HSE,” said the statement.
It added that no staff have died after contracting the virus.
The Department said confidentially restricts the publication of information.
"It is Department of Health policy not to comment on individual cases or groups of cases as to do so would compromise a person or group of people’s right to confidentiality with regard to any interaction they may have with the health service.
"In any confirmed case of COVID-19, contact tracing is undertaken as an immediate priority. This takes place, as it always has, on an all-island basis. A public health official will be in touch with any contact of a confirmed case," said the Department.
Extensive measures have been taken by prison staff and prisoners with the help of the Red Cross and HSE to prevent any prisoner from getting infected.
The IPS National Infection Control Team, in collaboration with the National Quality Improvement (QI) team and Health Service Executive (HSE) in Ireland, implemented a programme to develop and train in-prison contact tracing teams (CTTs). CTTs were run by prison staff with experience of working with detainees, prison IT systems and CCTV. Protocols for undertaking contact tracing for both detainee and staff cases of COVID-19 were established.
Oxford University has published a paper on how the Irish Prison Service preventing outbreaks of Covid-19 in prisons in the Journal of Public health.
It found that the partnership approach, that included prisoners, with development of prison-led CTTs can provide an effective mechanism for contact tracing of Covid-19 cases within the prison setting.
The Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, confirmed recently that taxpayers will have to pay an extra €5 million to fund the cost of Covid-19 at jails in Portlaoise and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, visitors must wear facemasks and sit behind perspex screens under a phased recommencement of physical family visits to prisons from Monday, July 20.
Following public health advice, and owing to the restriction on movements announced by the Government in an effort to curtail the spread of Covid-19, physical family visits to prison were suspended on March 27 and replaced with a new system of video visits.
However, a statement said visits will recommence on a phased basis commencing on Monday, July 20 but movement through the phases will be subject to ongoing risk assessment and will take account of the latest public health advice, the range of Government restrictions in place and other factors including the prevailing transmission rate in the community.
“In order to safely accommodate visitors and ensure compliance with social distancing requirements, in both our waiting areas and in the visiting areas, it has been necessary to limit the capacity and the frequency of visits at this time. Prior to Covid-19 over 4,500 visitors would have entered our prisons on a weekly basis,” it said.
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Phase 1 – Return of Physical Family Visits will operate as follows:
-Physical visits will recommence from July 20.
- All prisoners will be entitled to receive one physical family visit per fortnight, of not more than 15 minutes duration.
- Prisoners may opt for two video visits if preferred.
- Physical visits during this phase will be limited to one adult person (over 18 years of age).
- Prisoners will also be able to avail of one video visit of not more than 15 minutes duration per fortnight.
- In order to prevent the potential spread of infection all visits will be behind Perspex screens and visitors will be required to wear a face-covering at all times.
- No physical contact between prisoners and family members will be permitted.
Visits will be extended under phase 2 which wil commence on Monday, August 17.