Prisons face a dilemma: A Covid-19 outbreak or releasing sex offenders

Most at-risk elderly inmates, some in their 80s, are serving sentences for sex crimes

The majority of the State’s most vulnerable prisoners will remain in custody due to the nature of their offending. File Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

The majority of the State’s most vulnerable prisoners will remain in custody due to the nature of their offending. File Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

The Irish Prison Service cannot release scores of elderly convicted paedophiles from jail, even though many have underlying health conditions and are considered to be at extreme at risk from the coronavirus, Covid-19.

The prisoners, some of whom are in their 80s, do not qualify for temporary release. Instead, the prison authorities intend to release other younger inmates in an attempt to free up space and cut down the risks of the virus spreading.

The Government suspended all prison visits from Saturday, while the Irish Prison Service urged retired prison officers to consider returning temporarily, in a bid to ensure that cover exists to replace staff affected by the virus.

Movements inside prisons are being restricted, too: “There are a cohort of prisoners who would be considered in the high risk category for contracting Covid-19 due to their age, underlying medical issues and mental health,” an IPS spokesman said.

Prison officials are assessing the entire prison population for inmates who can be freed on temporary release. The nature of their offences and the length of time left on their sentences will be the main criteria in deciding if they are to be released.

Some 200 non-violent offenders were last week granted temporary release in an initial effort to ease overcrowding during the crisis.

“They were the low hanging fruit. The job now is a lot more difficult. We have to release people who in ordinary circumstances we wouldn’t think of granting TR [temporary release] at this stage of their sentence,” a prison official said.

Studies suggest prisoners with respiratory conditions, another high-risk category for Covid-19, are vastly overrepresented in the system, said Fíona Ní Chinnéide, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

“We also remain very concerned about people who are very elderly. The risk to public safety has to be considered but the reality is there are people in their 70s and 80s in prisons that have dementia, who can’t move from bed to sink. They present no risk to public safety.”

Minimal risk

A small number of long-serving elderly sex-offenders may be released on compassionate grounds, rather than under early release rules: “The problem is many of them have no family, nowhere to go. If they’ll probably just go straight to a nursing home,” a prison chaplain said.

A smaller portion of elderly inmates who have been jailed for murder offences, including some who have spent decades in jail also do not qualify for temporary release. Many of these people are considered to be of minimal risk to public safety due to their age, prison sources said.

The releases brought the prison population to its lowest level in many months but several prisons remain above or just under their maximum capacity, including Limerick men’s prison, which is at 101 per cent capacity.

Arbour Hill Prison in Dublin, which houses sexual offenders and many of the system’s elderly prisoners, is at 97 per cent capacity.

Slightly less than half of prisoners in the system must share a cell with at least one other person. Cloverhill Prison, which houses remand prisoners, is considered to be at a particularly high risk of an outbreak due to its three-bed cells and transient population. It is at 91 per cent capacity.

The near complete shutdown of the courts system means the number of new prisoners coming in has slowed. So far, there has not been a confirmed case of Covid-19 in the prison system, but a number of prisoners have been placed in self-isolation awaiting test results.

Separately, a prison officer has been suspended after about 200 pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE), which were due to be delivered to the IPS, went missing last week. A full investigation has commenced.