18 May 2022

Challenges posed by pandemic presented hugely in jails in Portlaoise and elsewhere

Prison: Numbers behind bars in jails tumbled due to virus

Challenges posed by pandemic presented hugely in jails  in Portlaoise and elsewhere

Irish Prison Service Director General Caron McCaffery and the then Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan unveiled a memorial garden to former prison service staff at Portlaoise Prison during 2020

The pandemic made 2020 an extraordinary year resulting in huge challenges to the Irish Prison Service according to its Director General, Caron McCaffrey.

The boss of the service which includes two big prisons in Portlaoise summarised the impact in the introduction to the annual report which publishes figures which put the spotlight on committals.

“2020 has been an extraordinary year. COVID-19 presented a huge challenge to our Service as the spread of the virus within the close confines of a prison could have devastating consequences for those who live and work in that environment.

“Working together as a team, we aimed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our prisons, detect early any possible case and contain any possible outbreak. The response to this crisis has been a whole-of-service response from management, staff, service providers and prisoners who have all worked together in collaboration. I am pleased to report that no hospitalisations as a result of COVID-19 were required,” she said.

The pandemic had a huge impact on numbers behind bars.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was evident in the reduced numbers committed to prison in 2020. In 2019, we reported a sustained increase in the numbers in prison, a trend that continued into the first quarter of 2020. However, from March 2020, as COVID-19 restrictions were implemented in the community, we began to see a reversal in this trend.

“The total number of committals to prison in 2020 was 6,340, a decrease of 29% (-2,599) from 2019.

“This is largely attributable to a reduction in Court activity throughout 2020. Other public health measures in place from March 2020, including restriction on travel and closure of non-essential retail and hospitality, have led to a reduction in the prevalence of certain crime types (Crimes Against the Person and Public Order Offences), which ultimately impact on committals to prison.

“The decrease in new committals, and a planned, managed programme of Temporary Release from March to May, as a response to managing the risk of an outbreak of COVID19 in prison, resulted in a decline in our numbers in custody. This was essential in ensuring an effective infection control regime.

“The average number in custody peaked at 4,108 in February 2020, before subsequently declining by 10.3% (-424) to a low of 3,684 in September 2020 and levelling off thereafter.

“There was a decrease of 3.7% (-147) in the average number in custody from 2019 to 2020. The average number of females in custody was 148, a 12.9% (-22) decrease on the 2019 average of 170.

“There was a 3.3% (-125) decrease in the average number of males in custody, from 3,801 in 2019 to 3,676 in 2020.

In 2020, the average number in prison on remand was 738, a 4.4% (+31) increase on 2019. 2020 also saw an increase in the average duration of remand. In December 2020, 11.5% of all remand prisoners had been on remand for a duration of one year or more, compared with 6% in December 2019. Furthermore, the 50.5% of remand prisoners had been in custody for three months or less in December 2020, compared with 65.5% in December 2019,” said Ms McCaffrey.

She praised staff for the efforts made in 2020.

"I wish to commend all our prison staff and service providers who have ensured that support for those in custody were maintained and enhanced where possible, during the year, despite the many challenges presented in 2020.

This has involved great creativity, innovation and flexibility and I would like to thank them for their contribution to our success in 2020. It also has involved some sacrifice, while rapidly and skilfully learning new ways of working and communicating with one another.

"The organisation as a whole thanks them for their contribution to the vison of the Irish Prison Service for a safer community through excellence in a Prison Service built on respect for human dignity," she concluded.

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