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McVerry calls for protection of prisoners and staff

Peter McVerry SJ and the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice have called for protection for the current 3,300 staff who service Ireland’s prisons and for the release of a further 800 prisoners.

According to the Irish Times, (Thursday 2 April 2020) two prison officers have contracted the Covid-19 virus. The Irish Prison Service (IPS) has not confirmed this.

As the risk of frontline prison staff contracting Covid-19 increases, with the concomitant issues around staffing levels, the JCFJ says funding should be available to IPS to cover staffing shortages and other contingency costs that will arise.

Peter McVerry has also called for the release of a further 800 prisoners in light of the ongoing nature of the current Covid-19 crisis.

Implementing these measures will save lives, lessen the burden on the prison staff and prove cost-effective for the government, according to  McVerry.

In a research document presented to the Minister for Justice, they recommended that sentences of less than twelve months be diverted to the community.

Peter McVerry says that a managed and accelerated temporary release of prisoners can work for the good of everyone. His call for the release of 800 prisoners includes 400 prisoners currently on remand.

It allows for discretion on the part of the IPS and the DJE to deny release for prisoners deemed to be a risk to public safety.

The JCFJ notes that there are currently 960 prisoners who were given sentences of less than two years: 887 male prisoners and 73 female prisoners. In addition, there will be prisoners within the overall population who received sentences longer than two years, nearing the end of their sentence and have received all the rehabilitative inputs available, who could be deemed suitable for full temporary release until the end of their sentence.

All prisoners under sentence granted full temporary release can be returned to prison if conditions of temporary release are broken.

A cohort of prisoners who received a mandatory minimum sentence for certain drug cases nearing the end of their sentence are not eligible for temporary release until the end of their sentence.

The statutory basis for mandatory minimum sentences should be repealed by the DJE to allow those prisoners near the end of mandatory minimum sentences to receive temporary release.

Regarding the diverting of sentences of under 12 months to the community, the JCFJ says The Department of Justice and Equality need to liaise with the Presidents of the various courts to instruct judges to reject any request for custodial remand if public safety is not at risk and to not issue sentences of less than twelve months. They say these instructions need to remain in place for at least a year.

According to the JCFJ report this moratorium, along with the proposed release of prisoners, would lessen the strain on the prison system, allowing for the implementation of a “one person, one cell” approach. With a decrease of prisoners entering the prisons on short-term sentences, the IPS could then focus directly on reducing the existing population.

Regarding the redirection into the community of people with sentences under a year the JCFJ acknowledges certain difficulties. They note that as the country enters a period of lockdown to combat Covid-19, community organisations and NGOs will likely be unavailable or on a reduced service, community sanctions will not be available.

They are therefore calling for deferred sanctions until a time when the public health risk is reduced, and community organisations and projects are available.  They say that in a more typical social and political environment, remand should only be used if public safety is a very real concern. This ethos of extremely limited use of custodial remand is even more pressing now, they claim.