Inmates in the country’s 14 jails are being vaccinated against Covid-19 on a “prison-by-prison” basis instead of by age group, following criticism of the pace of rollout in the system.
Prisoners are now being treated as a “difficult-to-reach group” for the purposes of vaccines, similar to homeless people. This means each prison’s population is being vaccinated in one go, instead of administering the vaccine based on age as is the case in the general population.
Those in the difficult-to-reach group are typically offered the Johnson and Johnson (J&J) vaccine which requires only one dose.
An Irish Prison Service (IPS) spokesman said the vaccine was being rolled out “logistically on a prison-by-prison basis”.
Prison officers under 40 years of age are also being offered the vaccine on the understanding that those over 40 will likely have been offered one in the community.
This process started last week and is to continue over the coming weeks. The vaccines are being administered by the National Ambulance Service, supported by IPS healthcare teams.
It is understood some 540 prisoners in Wheatfield Prison Prison have already been offered the vaccine so far, along with officers aged under 40 in the prison. Uptake is understood to be high. This leaves about 3,000 prisoners still to be offered a vaccine.
The mass rollout began on Monday, June 7th. Prior to that, only 82 prisoners (2.1 per cent) had been vaccinated despite recommendations from bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) that prison populations receive priority vaccinations due to the confined nature of facilities and underlying health conditions of many inmates.
The rate of vaccination drew criticism from Inspector of Prisons Patricia Gilheaney who said the "principle of equivalence" was not being adhered to in the rollout.
Prison and health sources said the decision to vaccinate inmates on a prison-by-prison basis was unrelated to the criticism and the planning had been ongoing for weeks prior to it.
“The vaccination of those aged 70 and over in the custody of the State commenced in March 2021 and was completed within four weeks,” a HSE spokesman said. “In line with Government agreement, the vaccination of all other prisoners commenced in June 2021 and is ongoing.”
Prison staff had previously expressed frustration over a lack of urgency in administering vaccines to the 3,200 officers working across the IPS. As of the start of June, about 360 officers had been vaccinated, mostly those responsible for transporting prisoners to and from hospitals.
In April, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) staged a “withdrawal of goodwill” in protest over a lack of communication on the matter from the Government. This involved officers adhering strictly to their duties over a four-day period in April and caused delays in some court appearances.
However, the POA said this protest had no impact on the administration of vaccines to prisoners.
POA secretary general John Clinton said last week officers were not seeking prioritisation in the vaccine queue, "we were merely seeking to have our members vaccinated as many were deployed in high-risk environments, where all other State employees had been or were in the process of being vaccinated".
The IPS has been largely successful in preventing the spread of Covid-19 since the start of pandemic. However, there have been several significant outbreaks, including one in Mountjoy which affected 36 inmates.