Monday, June 8, 2020

Ask an Expert: Monitoring of Prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Patricia Gilheaney, Inspector of Prisons, Ireland

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons pose a particularly challenging environment in which to prevent the spread of disease. Therefore, the oversight of prison is an important strategy to ensure rights are respected and that efforts taken to prevent spread of disease are necessary, proportionate, respectful of human dignity and restricted in time. In Ireland, the Office of the Inspector of Prisons has been instrumental to monitoring the prison response to COVID-19. PRILA had the great opportunity to ask Chief Inspector Gilheaney about her experience of oversight in Irish prisons.

The PRILA Project (Prisons: the Rule of Law, Accountability, and Rights), located at Trinity College Dublin under the leadership of Prof Mary Rogan, aims to improve policy and practice in the governance of Europe’s prisons.



1.     What makes prison a challenging environment when it comes to the management of COVID-19?


There is copious evidence regarding the prevalence and spread of infectious diseases in congregated settings. Prisons provide an ideal setting for the spread of such diseases due to large numbers of people living in congregated cramped conditions. A high proportion of people in prisons are also considered to be vulnerable due to their age and poor health status. Therefore, there are challenges in providing single cell accommodation, social distancing measures, clean environments, access to meaningful interactions with others, visits from family members; access to education/work/training. The ‘usual’ routine in a prison is completely changed very quickly, and frequent communication to people in custody and staff explaining what is happening and why is of particular importance. Protective measures may require additional restrictions, which, if used inappropriately could amount to ill-treatment.  On the other hand, a failure to protect people in custody from contracting a serious infectious disease as a result of lack of preventative measures may also amount to ill treatment.  Therefore, there is a difficult challenge in balancing appropriate preventive measures to ensure they are public health led, proportionate and for the minimum amount of time necessary.


2.   Can you provide some examples of how prisons in Ireland have responded to the current crisis?


Prisons in Ireland have adopted a wide range of measures to prevent the entry of COVID-19. The Irish Prison Service (IPS) established an Emergency Response Planning Team (ERPT) to plan and co-ordinate the IPS response to the crisis, which maintains a close working relationship with the national Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and the Health Service Executive (HSE). In addition to NPHET, the IPS was guided by specific guidance on the management of COVID 19 issued by the Council of Europe and the WHO. Some of the steps taken include (but not limited to) the following:

  • Introduction of basic health screening plus a temperature check of all persons prior to entering a prison.
  • Enhanced Communication by provision of weekly newsletters to people in custody and staff.  This has been well received and should continue post-pandemic.
  • Establishment of a contract tracing model to ensure prompt identification of contacts of confirmed cases.
  • Separation of high-risk people from the general population: on 2 June a total of 263 people were in confinement – 13 in isolation, 130 in quarantine, 120 cocooning. The main challenge is to ensure that these additional restrictive measures are based solely on medical decisions and are in place for the minimum period of time necessary.
  • Suspension of family visits in prisons replaced with virtual video-link visits.  This has not been a smooth transition. As issues were encountered the IPS put in place measures to address them, e.g. publication of user guides on how to use the system on the IPS website.


3.   What are some of the challenges the Office of the Inspector of Prisons has faced in continuing to monitor during this time?


The OIP is cognisant of the need for enhanced oversight during this time when additional restrictions are being placed on people in custody and prisons are effectively closed. The principal of ‘do no harm’ is placed to the forefront of all activities. When in prison the Inspectorate adheres to relevant public health advices; social distancing measures and conversations with prisoners and staff take place, in as far as possible in open areas. As the team is small in number, visits are limited to one person and this of course does impact upon the number of prisons that can be visited.


4.   What steps has the OIP taken to ensure monitoring can continue, and to ensure that both inspectors and those in prison are protected while this work is carried out?


Our oversight monitoring activities during this time include both onsite and remote activities as follows:

  • All prisons have received a one-day visit with a specific emphasis on ‘out of cell time’ and provision of meaningful human contact.
  • When in prisons PPE was worn when appropriate and social distancing was maintained.
  • In order to capture the ‘lived experience’ of persons being cocooned a journal was. issued to 88 people in 7 prisons.
  • We receive a daily update from the IPS with information on confirmed (zero prisoner cases at time of writing this report) and suspected cases, and link with the IPS Director General every 7-10 days.
  • Every two weeks the OIP receives a verbal report from the Governor in each prison.
  • We receive copies of the information leaflets and steps for various cohorts of prisoners from the IPS.
  • Activity data (at a point in time) relating to all prisons regarding family visits and solicitor conference calls via video link and calls to the IPS support line.

We are aware of the guidance regarding monitoring of places of detention from a range of international bodies and we also link in with colleagues in other jurisdictions to share experiences and methods.


5.    As one of the few people permitted to access prisons during this time, can you share some thoughts on how people living and working in prison are coping with the pandemic?

From the Journals of the people who have been cocooning, that I have reviewed to date, it can be seen that communication has been important:

'…we are still well-informed, another info sheet from the IPS, encouraging us to keep our minds busy – not too difficult for me.  I still do a bit of French each morning.  These advice sheets are very useful.'

The mental health effects also come across, with some coping better than others and some using humour to get by:

'The lockdown continues. Some are getting a bit cross. Small niggles take on a new meaning for some and grow out of all proportion. Its to be expected within a group under pressure.  Lockdown rather suits me. I’m used to living on my own. … Must be worse outside, a sunny week-end, no pubs, no beach, no shopping trip. I’ll just stay here!' (sic)


Some understand being cocooned as a protection and others as punishment:

'My punishment by the courts was prison, now doing my punishment cocooning is like doing my time in solitary confinement.  Being punish now for having a chronic, obstructive, pulmonary disease.' (sic)


'I realise prison service is doing its best, and the priority is in preventing us oldies catching the virus, for which we must be thankful. When will it end?'


Others spoke about how difficult it is for staff:          

'Officers of the XXX have to deal with it both at home and in prison, so they are on the front line all the time. The go about there duties well, and mostly with a smiley face.' (sic)

'Several different medical staff do their duties without complaint, from week to week with a kindly smile on their face.  I know this sounds strange, to the suits outside, but for anybody outside who knows how it feels to be cocooned for so long smiley faces mean a lot.'


Thank you to the Patricia Gilheaney, Chief Inspector of Prisons in Ireland, for sharing her insights and experience of managing oversight in prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read the unabridged version of this blog post, please visit:


Suggested citation: 'Ask an Expert: Monitoring of Prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Patricia Gilheaney, Inspector of Prisons, Ireland' COVID-19 Law and Human Rights Observatory Blog (8 June 2020)

Return to home page of the COVID-19 Law and Human Rights Observatory.

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