The Irish Prison Service has submitted a paper to the World Health Organisation as a model of best practice for keeping Covid-19 out of prisons.
Currently, there are 3,705 prisoners in Ireland and no detainee that has been screen and tested has had a positive Covid-19 result. How has the Prison Service managed to keep the virus out of its settings and what can be learned from its management of Covid-19?
The roots of this remarkable feat go back to 2017.
Instances of Tuberculosis in Irish prisons had resulted in the establishment of an infection control team, managed by Emmett Conroy and in partnership with the Irish Red Cross Inmates Team. When TB occurred three years ago, the Irish Prison Service introduced “a whole of prison approach to infection control”.
One of the key components was education where 2,300 staff and 450 prisoners learned about infection control and had to practice what they were taught. Through peer-to-peer learning, Irish Red Cross inmates promoted hand hygiene techniques and coughing etiquette. Irish Red Cross inmate volunteers spoke to other prisoners about making the environment safer and staff did the same with their colleagues.
All of this was before anyone knew what was about to occur with Covid-19.
In January this year, as news of Covid-19 started to emerge, the Irish Prison Service infection control team, together with the Irish Red Cross team, began tracking and tracing the virus and saw the impact it was having on prison environments in other countries.
Ted, an Irish Red Cross inmate volunteer, got involved and related information from the health authorities to other prisoners.
“What we try to do is inform people of what’s going on as regards visits, hand washing techniques, social distancing and things like that,” he said.
The Red Cross inmates handed out leaflets, showed others how to wash their hands properly and explained how meal times would change to enable social distancing. Detainees understand the measures are necessary but the lack of visitors has been difficult for them.
Ted said: “Everyone knew if the virus got into the jail, it would be very bad because obviously if you are in here for a long time your immune system is not as good as it should be anyway, so no one wanted to get the virus, but the visits were the big thing because family is everything when you are in prison.
“So being away from family was the major thing but as time went on, we got video calls and it was all understood. It was amazing really, people understood that they had to keep this thing out of the prison and thank god they did.”
Prisons in Northern Ireland, England and South America have been in contact with the Infection Control Team for advice on how it managed to keep Covid out of prisons. The World Health Organisation’s prison programme has also been in touch. The WHO is particularly interested in the contact tracing model for other countries that are trying to ease restrictions. It is expected to publish a paper submitted by the IPS on its methods soon.
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