Prison officers have been told by their union to withdraw their “goodwill” in an action designed to force clarity from the justice and health authorities about when officers will be vaccinated against Covid-19.
There were some delays and disruption within prisons on Friday when the action began, including with arrangements around escorting prisoners to and from jails for court appearances and other appointments.
There were delays of about an hour at many prisons as staff queued to be admitted to work when the security arrangements were slowed, with longer delays reported at the Midlands Prison, Portlaoise. The delivery of medicines and food had also slowed across the prison estate.
Prison officers told The Irish Times there was now very serious unease within the service at the lack of any timeframe for officers being vaccinated. They said this had escalated as officers looked on as Dublin Fire Brigade officers were vaccinated and some gardaí had also begun to receive the vaccine.
The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) said its members were being forced to work in the prison setting where prisoners were moving in and out of jails daily, with the risk of contracting Covid-19 a constant hazard.
The association's general secretary, John Clinton, also told The Irish Times when his members were bringing prisoners for hospital visits, they were the only staff in the hospital setting not vaccinated, yet prisoners were handcuffed to them for security reasons.
He said his members and their families were “understandably concerned” at the situation and they wanted clarity around when officers would start receiving their vaccines or be placed on stand-by lists.
"We have been reading media reports confirming that various sections of society will be vaccinated as part of various 'numerical and age groups', and yet the Department of Health has continually refused to confirm that we are actually in Group 9 of the schedule – and this continues to create confusion and concern," Mr Clinton said.
The POA had raised the matter with the Irish Prison Service in early December, before any vaccinations began in the Republic. Since then they had written to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly seeking clarity, but they had "been largely ignored".
The Irish Prison Service told The Irish Times it had worked closely with all staff and the POA to manage the challenges of the pandemic.
“This successful management of the Covid-19 pandemic by the service has been recognised both nationally and internationally,” it said. “The Irish Prison Service has been and continues to engage with Government, with regard to access to the Covid-19 vaccination for both prison staff and prisoners in line with the vaccine allocation groups published by Government.”
Mr Clinton noted there were just 3,200 prison officers nationwide and he did not believe vaccinating them would represent a major challenge, adding prisoners had been isolated within jails 6,000 times over Covid-19 risk since the pandemic began. He insisted officers were not looking for “special treatment”. Rather, they were looking for clarity and fairness.
The POA explained that in the first three months of this year 565 prisoners had attended emergency departments as outpatients. They were escorted by a total of 1,410 prison officers, in hazmat suits, working up 7,415 hours when they were exposed to the virus in the hospital setting. A further 59 patients were admitted to hospitals as inpatients, involving 2,080 officers working 24,960 hours.
Of those prisoners, two tested positive for Covid-19 and a total of 48 officers, working 570 hours, had been involved in their escorts.