711. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Justice her views in relation to the Inspector of Prisons commencing a Covid-19 thematic inspection of all Irish prisons; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12875/21]
Minister for Justice (Deputy Helen McEntee): As the Deputy may be aware, the Office of the Inspector of Prisons is a statutory body, independent in how it carries out its work, set up under the Prisons Act 2007. The Inspector's key role is to carry out regular inspections of prisons. The Office is required to inspect the twelve prisons in Ireland to examine the treatment and conditions for prisoners and for staff. The Inspector may also investigate any matter arising out of the management or operation of a prison and submit a report on any such investigation.
In late 2020, the Office began the process of preparing an inspection schedule in line with the 2020 Framework for the Inspection of Irish Prisons and the 2020-2023 Strategic Plan. Inspections for 2021 were to include three general inspections and one thematic inspection, with four inspection reports to be submitted to me by the conclusion of 2021.
However, as you will appreciate, as of late January 2021, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its current state of transmission in and beyond prisons, the Office has determined it should suspend its 2021 general inspection programme until such point that a full inspection team can enter the prison safely.
The Inspector is cognisant of the need to provide oversight of prisons and to inform me of the situation for prisoners and staff working in prisons during the pandemic. In response to this need, the Inspector embarked on a COVID-19 focused inspection schedule designed to assess COVID-19 thematic issues in line with human rights standards and the Framework Focus Areas (Safety & Security, Respect & Dignity, Health & Wellbeing, Rehabilitation & Development and Resettlement). The first COVID-19 Thematic Inspection visit has recently taken place in Mountjoy Prison from 1 to 4 March 2021.
In addition, I am informed that COVID-19 Thematic Inspections will be complemented by ongoing COVID-19 telephone communications with each of the prisons in Ireland. I am advised that the Inspectorate will carry out telephone calls to prisons at least every two weeks to take account of the status of the aforementioned Framework Focus Areas. The Inspectorate will also distribute an online survey for prison staff across the prison estate. The objective of the survey will be to gain an understanding of how prison staff are handling challenges associated with COVID-19. These inspection activities will be supplemented by statistical data requested from the Irish Prison Service.
The Irish Prison Service welcome such oversight and inspection, and in particular the focus of the thematic inspection on Covid-19 which has hugely impacted the services provided over the last year. While the Prison Service has been relatively successful in mitigating against the risks associated with the pandemic and have managed containing infection and outbreak controls, the Prison Service also look forward to the learnings that will be derived from the Inspector's findings and recommendations.