Govt ‘failing’ prisoners with vaccine delay, say Jesuits

Govt ‘failing’ prisoners with vaccine delay, say Jesuits
Bishops call for return of Mass to Irish prisons

Irish bishops have come out in support of prisoners’ “constitutional right” to practice their religion, as communal worship has yet to restart in Irish penal institutions. There is also growing calls for prisoners to be vaccinated sooner so that some of the restrictions on their lives can be eased.

Although public worship returned in the general public on May 10, no date has been set for a resumption of communal worship in Irish prisons.

Prisoners’ constitutional right to practice their religion “should not be denied to them except for very grave reasons”, said Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin, who has responsibility for Castlerea Prison in Co. Roscommon.

He acknowledged that the prison environment presents many challenges particular to it, but added that “the chapel in Castlerea Prison is quite spacious and, given the numbers of prisoners who came to Mass in pre-Covid times, maintaining social distancing should not be an obstacle”.

“The Diocese is happy to provide services to facilitate the return to Mass for prisoners in accordance with current guidelines,” Bishop Doran told The Irish Catholic.

Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick said that he is “supportive of all in prisons”, adding that he has visited Limerick Prison a number of times in the past year and the diocese continues to provide chaplaincy services.

“The past year has not been easy and we must be mindful of prisoners and their pastoral needs,” Bishop Leahy said.

Meanwhile, Fr Peter McVerry SJ said the “worst thing” for prisoners is the lack of a timeline for a return of their fundamental rights, including religious practice.

“The worst thing is not knowing what’s going to happen, how long this is going to last for,” Fr McVerry said.

He and the the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice (JCFJ) have criticised delays in vaccine distribution to prison inmates and staff, with just 2% of the roughly 3,800 prisoners vaccinated and 360 prison officers.

Fr Peter McVerry said that prisons should have been prioritised along with other congregated settings, pointing out the hardships and difficulty inmates and staff have faced.

“For prisoners, it’s been very difficult,” Fr McVerry said. “You’re locked in your cell pretty much all day except for maybe one hour or so to get out. It’s very, very difficult.

“I don’t know why they weren’t prioritised. It’s a small population, 3,000 plus, they could have done them all in a morning.”

The JCFJ Social policy advocate Keith Adams said that we have “absolutely” failed our prison population with the vaccine delays, calling for its prioritisation as a care setting.

The Irish Prison Service is likely “in contravention of its prison rules, when you have such a low number of prisoners who have been vaccinated,” he said, adding that it’s “also the Dept. of Health and the HSE”.

“Within the Irish prison rules, there’s this idea of Equity in Healthcare,” Mr Adams explained. “You shouldn’t be disadvantaged in receiving any kind of diagnostic or curative or preventative intervention.”

Mr Adams said that prisons, given the higher numbers of people with vulnerable conditions, “is a huge risk for future infections, so for this period it should be treated as a care setting”.