ALL visits to Irish prisons have been suspended over Covid-19 fears with inmates now being offered 'virtual visits' with their families and loved ones.
The Irish Prison Service (IPS) will, from next week, offer inmates the chance to see and chat with their loved ones via special electronic platforms including the Internet and various video services.
It came as the IPS previously granted 200 prisoners early release in a bid to assist with infection control and social-distancing measures, bringing to 579 the total number of prisoners currently on early release.
The total number of people behind bars in Ireland's 12 prisons has dropped from almost 4,500 in mid January to 3,900 last week.
Until now, the IPS had attempted despite virus fears to maintain inmate visits on a restricted basis - being limited to one visitor per inmate with each visit restricted to 15 minutes.
Strict hygiene measures including hand sanitisers were also provided.
To date, no case of Covid-19 has been confirmed in an Irish prison though 12 inmates at the Dóchas Centre in Mountjoy were in isolation.
Health chiefs admitted that their greatest concern has focused on Covid-19 spreading to vulnerable centres such as nursing homes and geriatric hospitals as well as concentrated population centres such as prisons.
Now, inmates will have to visit with their loved ones via electronic means.
"The volume of people entering and exiting our prisons on a daily basis means effective infection control and vigilance is absolutely essential," a Government spokesperson said.
"Prisons are the home or the place of work of over 7,000 people and the IPS is taking a number of necessary measures aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19 including the restriction of visits to prisoners."
"The IPS has made every effort to continue to run normal family visits for as long as possible. However, in the best interests of the health and safety of prison staff, prisoners and their families, from tomorrow normal physical visits will no longer be possible."
"Physical visits will be replaced by electronic visits via Internet platforms, video link and video-phone."
"Electronic visits will negate the need for visitors, for example, to gather in visitor centres at each prison and are in line with the recommendations announced this week by the Taoiseach."
The IPS will work with inmate families over such 'virtual visits' and will liaise with families who may have not ready access to such electronic platforms.
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