Written answers

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Department of Justice and Equality

Prisoner Data

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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491. To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality the number of prisoners in the prison system; the number of these sharing cells; the reduction in the number of prisoners sharing cells since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic; and the further steps proposed to be taken to reduce this number in order to reduce the risk of a large scale outbreak of Covid-19 in the prison system. [6808/20]

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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492. To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality the number of prisoners let out on temporary release or on community return since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic compared to the same period in 2019; the number of prisoners currently in prison serving sentences that have less than six months left to run; if consideration has been given to giving these temporary release to reduce the overcrowding in prisons in view of the experience with this disease to date in congregated settings and the risk it poses to prisoners and staff alike; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6809/20]

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 491 and 492 together.

As the Deputy will appreciate, Covid-19 provides unique challenges to custodial institutions, including our prisons. Covid-19 in a prison setting would present significant challenges for prison management in terms of controlling the spread of the virus amongst staff and prisoners, and the provision of appropriate medical treatment to affected persons and the maintenance of staffing levels.

A significant amount of work has been carried out by the Irish Prison Service to address this challenge, informed and guided by the advice received from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), and consistent with the prison specific guidance for the management of Covid-19 issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Council of Europe.

As the Deputy is aware, in March this year, I approved a number of actions to assist the Irish Prison Service to reduce the numbers of prisoners in custody, including the temporary release of low-risk prisoners, in order to ensure effective infection control measure were possible.

In the first instance, the approach adopted included granting temporary release to low risk prisoners who were serving sentences of less than 12 months for non-violent offences. Subsequently, prisoners assessed as low risk who had less than 6 months to serve were also granted temporary release from some prisons depending on the risks present.

I am informed that all prisoners granted temporary release were assessed on a case-by-case basis. The primary factor in the consideration of any prisoner for early release remains public safety and risks assessed included any convictions for domestic abuse, such as breach of barring orders which present significant risks at the present time. I am informed that, on 19 May 2020 there were 752 prisoners in custody with less than 6 months remaining on their sentence. It is important to note, however, that many of these prisoners will not be eligible for temporary release due to the nature of their offence, the risk to public safety or further charges pending which remand them to custody beyond the expiration of their current sentence.

As a result of the measures taken, I am informed that an initial 470 prisoners were granted temporary release and that, since then, further periods of temporary release have been granted resulting in a total of over 600 prisoners receiving temporary release, including community return, since the outset of this pandemic. As the Deputy will appreciate, the size of the prison population changes on a daily basis, as new committals and remands are made by the courts and releases occur as prisoners reach the end of their sentences. However, I am informed by the Irish Prison Service that, due to the granting of temporary release and a reduced number of committals from the Courts, the prison population has reduced from 4,235 on 11 March 2020 to 3,763 on 20 May 2020. This represents a reduction of 472 or just over 11% over this period.

I am informed that the following table sets out the prison population and the number of prisoners on temporary release for dates within the period in 2019 and 2020 referred to by the Deputy.

Date Total Prison Population Number on Temporary Release
11 March 2019 3984 217
20 May 2019 3999 243
11 March 2020 4235 343
20 May 2020 3763 427
As the Deputy will appreciate, given the current number of prisoners in custody, the Irish Prison Service is not in a position to provide single cell accommodation to all prisoners. I am informed that single-cell occupancy across the system would result in a bed capacity of less than 3,000 and would not be possible to achieve without releasing sizeable numbers of prisoners considered to represent a threat to public safety. I am further informed that, in some cases, prisoners are housed together for reasons other than lack of capacity. I understand that family members and friends often elect or are assigned a shared cell. I am further informed that shared cell accommodation can in certain cases be very beneficial from a management point of view, particularly for those who are vulnerable and at risk of self-harm, and that there will always be a need for certain prisoners to be accommodated together.

I am informed that information regarding in-cell occupancy is collated by the Irish Prison Service on a quarterly basis. The data for the April Census is currently being finalised for publication. I am advised by the Irish Prison Service that the number of prisoners sharing cells has been reduced by 146 from 1,892 in January 2020 to 1,746 in April 2020.

The Deputy may be interested to note that this and a wide range of other statistical information is available on the website of the Irish Prison Service at www.irishprisons.ie

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