Hundreds of prisoners may be released to reduce jail risk of Covid-19

Prisoners with less than three months on their sentences would be considered for release first

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Prisoners with less than three months remaining on their sentences will be considered for early release as part of plans being put in place by the Irish Prison Service to deal the coronavirus risk.

Hundreds of prisoners may be released from jails in the Republic in a pre-emptive response by Prison Service to the coronavirus risk.

Security sources stressed that no decision has been made, adding the step may be taken to better position prisons to respond in the event of some prisoners testing positive for the virus.

Prisoners with less than three months remaining would be considered for early release first, followed by those with up to six months remaining.

The Irish Times understands prisoners with more than 12 months left to serve would never be considered, nor would those serving sentences for violent crimes, including sex offences.

On Friday night, the Irish Prison Service said the confirmation of a Covid-19 case in an Irish jail would “present significant challenges for prison management”.

“In this regard, the Irish Prison Service is in discussion with the Department of Justice and Equality on a number of contingency measures to reduce the number of people in custody in a controlled manner.”

Sources said if the prison population was reduced the medical services and other staff would be much better placed to isolate and deal with any Covid-19 cases. A smaller prison population would also be easier to manage in the event prison officers or other staff, including caterers and teachers, were infected.

There is concern within the Department of Justice and the Irish Prison Service that the prisoner population may be especially vulnerable to Covid-19. Many prisoners have serious underlying health, due in large part to years of drug abuse, and a large number are being maintained in methadone.

The Prison Service has already moved to take steps in a bid to keep Covid-19 out of jails, including cutting back on visits.

Security sources pointed out while the prisons were at 97 per cent capacity, some were beyond capacity. The prisoner population has also been steadily increasing, after years of decline, as recorded crime increases. “In the period since the start of the year numbers in jail have increased from 4,092 to 4,343 at present.”

Meanwhile, it has also emerged that new Garda rosters will require Garda members to work 12-hour shifts from Monday as part of efforts to increase patrols and reassure the public amid concern over Covid-19.

The Garda response will be coordinated by a new Covid-19 Coordination Unit in Garda Headquarters, Phoenix Park, Dublin, which will operate 24-7 and will be headed by Liaison and Protection Det Chief Supt Cliona Richardson.