Prisoners are to be allowed family visits next month, more than three months after they were suspended due to Covid-19, but for just 15 minutes at a time and for a single relative .
As part of a gradual reversal of Covid-19 restrictions, physical visits will also be limited to one per fortnight and to adults aged over 18 years in the first of a two phase return to normal operations.
Before the virus outbreak more than 4,500 visits took place in Irish facilities every week. These were suspended on March 27th and replaced with a system of video “visits” which still remain an option.
On Tuesday, the Irish Prison Service (IPS) released details of its plans to slowly allow people return to see relatives.
From July 20th, 15 minute visits will be allowed for one family member per prisoner, once a fortnight as well as the option of one video visit. Prisoners can opt for two video visits instead if preferred.
“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,” the prison service said. “No physical contact between prisoners and family members will be permitted.”
In phase two, beginning on Monday, August 17th, those visiting will be increased to two people and can include a child but the time limit of 15 minutes will remain.
These time limits have been put in place in order to reduce capacity in both waiting and visiting areas as part of ongoing social distancing necessity.
“The Irish Prison Service fully appreciates how important contact with family is to prisoners and has been committed to the early return of physical family visits as soon as it was considered safe to do so,” it said.
“Visits will recommence on a phased basis and movement through the phases will be subject to ongoing risk assessment and will take account latest public health advice, the range of Government restrictions in place and other factors including the prevailing transmission rate in the community.”
The plan was welcomed by the Irish Penal Reform Trust. Executive director of the advocacy body Fíona Ní Chinnéide said while the suspension of visits for three months was necessary it has been “incredibly tough” on prisoners and their families for whom contact can be a lifeline.
However she said one of the positives to come out of Covid-19 was the national roll-out of family video visits as an alternative.
This “has meant that there are children who, some for the first time, are now able to show their parents their bedrooms, ask for help with their homework, or see their parent’s face while they sit down to eat dinner.” She said it was crucial they were retained into the future while provision of in-cell phones would “further support family contact”.