Prisons: Compassionate Release Arrangements

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 2 November 2021.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:30, 2 November 2021

T6. Mr Durkan asked the Minister of Justice to state whether the experience of a prisoner from his constituency is common practice or COVID-related and whether she agrees that it does not sound very compassionate, given that although the man was very grateful to have been granted temporary compassionate release at the weekend that enabled him to spend precious hours with his father as he passed away, on his return to prison, he was handcuffed, strip-searched, isolated in a dirty cell, with meals being pushed under a door to him and he may not have been able to shower, and bearing in mind that this man suffers from poor mental health, getting his medication has been a handling. (AQT 1736/17-22)

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

That does not reflect my experience nor, indeed, reports that I have had of the self-isolation units in the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS). I must say that it does not tie in with what I have seen and witnessed of the service that is provided by the Prison Service. It has a responsibility to, as far as possible, mitigate the risks of COVID-19 for the whole prison population. Having safeguards in place in prison establishments is important, given that prisons are dynamic residential and communal settings. As such, they are highly prone to outbreaks of COVID-19 as the result of the importation of even one single case.

The Prison Service has a number of processes in place to mitigate the ongoing risk that is presented by COVID-19 in the prison environment. That includes placing prisoners in isolation when they are newly committed or temporarily released from custody, and they are advised of that before they leave custody. The measures that NIPS has introduced have been largely successful in preventing any widespread infection amongst staff or prisoners. Using isolation is consistent with guidance from the World Health Organization and the Public Health Agency, and has been a very effective safeguard in preventing the transmission of COVID-19 into the prison environment.

Since 25 October, the Northern Ireland Prison Service has reduced the period of isolation from 14 days to 10 days for individuals who are double vaccinated, depending on their receiving a negative PCR test at day 2 and day 8. That change has been supported by the Public Health Agency. During their time in isolation, people in custody have access to healthcare, legal representation and showers, and can maintain family contact. The Prison Service takes very seriously the safety of staff and all those people who are placed in its care. It is committed to doing everything possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

Obviously, I cannot discuss individual cases. As with the restrictions that apply to the rest of society, in common with the Northern Ireland Executive's approach, we want to relax those that apply to prisons and people in our care in a way that is timely, safe and sustainable. If the Member has particular concerns, I encourage him to speak in the first instance to the Director General of the Prison Service.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 2:45, 2 November 2021

Time is up. I ask Members to take their ease.