573. Deputy Réada Cronin asked the Minister for Justice if the practices of visiting prisoners have been adjusted and improved in accordance with vaccination levels in the prison and general population given many have been without family visits since March 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37832/21]
Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy Hildegarde Naughton): The unwinding of prison restrictions and the resumption of physical visits is a priority for the Irish Prison Service and my Department. As the Deputy will appreciate, this is kept under ongoing review and is subject to a number of critical factors including the risk of the Delta variant, the need to maintain infection control measures, the roll out of the prison vaccination programme for both prisoners and staff, as well as the community vaccination programme.
I can advise the Deputy that the Irish Prison Service has developed a new Framework for the Unwinding of Prison Restrictions, informed by the recent Government Plan for reopening our society, set out in Resilience and Recovery: The Path Ahead.
On 9 June, a full prison vaccination programme commenced on a phased prison by prison basis. Vaccinations are being administered by the National Ambulance Service, supported by Prison Service health care teams to all prisoners, and unvaccinated staff under 40 years of age. In line with the vaccination schedule, physical visits to prisons will recommence on a phased prison by prison basis with visits resuming 7 days after prisoners have been fully vaccinated. To date, nine prisons have received their first round of vaccinations with the remaining three prisons scheduled in the coming weeks.
I can confirm that in the past week a second round of vaccinations took place in Wheatfield and Portlaoise Prisons and the Irish Prison Service will recommence physical visits in Wheatfield Prison on 14 July and in Portlaoise Prison on 16 July.
I am advised that, under the current vaccination schedule, it is expected that visits will have recommenced in eight prisons by the end of July with visits returning to the remaining four locations in August and September (Midlands, Limerick, Cloverhill and Cork Prisons).
However, it is also important to note that this will be subject to consideration of infection and hospitalisation levels in the community, given the increased concern surrounding the Delta variant.
The operation and frequency of visits will be kept under ongoing review, guided by HSE, Public Health advice and with a desire to support as much contact as possible between prisoners and their families.
Finally, I can advise the Deputy that the video visit system which was introduced in 2020 has proven very successful and when physical visits recommence, the Irish Prison Service will also retain the option of video calls for prisoners.
Detailed information for families in relation to the operation of visits and booking system is available on the Irish Prison Service website www.irishprisons.ie.