COVID restrictions on visits for prisoners raised by Derry Colrs

THe NI Prison Service has responded to concerns raised by Derry & Strabane Councillors over the application of COVID restrictions in relation to prison visits.

In a joint statement, Independent Derry City & Strabane District Councillors Sean Carr, Gary Donnelly Paul Gallagher raised concerns over the treatment of Republican prisoners.

They stated: “With the relaxation of almost all the restrictions caused by the global pandemic, society is beginning to return to normality. However this isn’t the case for Republican prisoners in Maghaberry and Hydebank jails.”

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The Councillors claimed that the administration were using the restrictions “to infringe on the prisoners rights, and in particular on visiting rights”.

Councillors Sean Carr, Paul Gallagher and Gary Donnelly pictured previously. DER1815MC156

“They are trying to force prisoners to take visits in what can only amount to a hostile environment, with perspex screens, little or no physical contact and an intrusive prison guard presence,” the public representatives said, adding: “The effect this would have on families, in particular children would make the visit an intimidating and intrusive experience instead of one conducive with the rights of both visitors and prisoners.

“There is no reason why visiting conditions cannot return to the pre-covid situation in tandem with the rest of society.”

A spokesman for the NI Prison Service responded: “Prisons, like all sections of the community, responded to the threat posed by Omicron by restricting access. As that threat recedes steps have been taken to recommence our recovery.

“This has included the resumption of in-person visits from Monday January 31 following their temporary suspension in response to the Omicron variant. A maximum of two adults and one child, or one adult and two children are permitted to attend a visit and contact can be facilitated between children under the age of 11 and their parent in custody.

“Keeping people safe has been our top priority throughout the pandemic. The threat of Covid-19 is particularly challenging in a prison. However, we will continue to be proactive in our response to Covid-19 and to relax restrictions when it is safe to do so.

“The restrictions put in place apply equally to all 1,600 prisoners currently in our care and have ensured the safety of the prison population. To date only 15 prisoners have tested positive, a clear demonstration that the proportionate actions taken by NIPS during the past two years have been highly effective.”

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Justice Minister Naomi Long said recently that a six-week ‘road to recovery’ plan sets out what the Prison Service aims to have in place by Monday, April 4. Other key decisions include the full reintroduction of in-person learning and skills, rehabilitative programmes and pre-release testing.

Recovery, she said, will include the following measures: In-person contact visits, including at the weekend; Full re-introduction of learning and skills provision – in-person and virtual; The return of all statutory and VCS partners; Pre-release testing maximised.