CALL TO END RESTRICTIONS & BOOK BAN IN PRISONS
With the onset of Covid-19 the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) introduced strict restrictions in attempt to control the spread of the virus. Such restrictions have included the stopping of in-person visits and introduction of virtual visits – video calls lasting up to 20 minutes.
Other restrictions have included the stopping education activities and preventing access to library prison services. The aim of these restrictions was to close down the prison estate to ‘non-essential’ personnel and limiting movement within each prison.
Furthermore, restrictions have been placed on the items that prisoners can receive in the post, which has prevented prisoners receiving books, news publications and political literature from family, friends and independent publishers and distributors.
The effects of these restrictions have been far reaching. Restrictions on movements have resulted in many prisoners spending large parts of the past eighteen months locked in their cells, often for up to 23 hours each day. The lack of purposeful activity has had a profound affect on the emotional and psychological well-being of prisoners. The lack of in-person visits meanwhile has deeply impacted their relationships with family and friends. The isolation and loneliness many prisoners experienced has been made worse by the limited access to educational opportunities and reading materials.
These restrictions have been relatively effective in limiting the spread of Covid-19 among prisoners in the north of Ireland. As of August 2021, there has been only four confirmed cases of Covid-19 among the general prison population in the north of Ireland.
In recent months, as the Covid-19 pandemic has become less acute, restrictions have started to ease across the prison estate in the north of Ireland. Since 4 May 2021 in-person visits have been possible and since 7 June, one adult and a child from the same household can visit. However, social distance measures continue to be applied to in-person visits – meaning prisoners are unable to touch their visitors.
Meanwhile, in-person visits are extremely time-limited. As a result, many prisoners do not want to put their family through the rigmarole of a prison visit for such an impersonal, short visit. Education activities have also begun to be lifted, which has offered prisoners the opportunity to continue their learning. However, restrictions persist in relation to library services and postal services. As such, prisoners in the north of Ireland continue to face extreme restrictions on their access to reading materials. Currently, prisoners in the north do not have access to: full library services, independent publishers and distributors, and literature sent by family and friends.
A spokesperson for the Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee in a statement demanded that the "Northern Ireland Prison Service immediately end their policy of banning books and reading materials across the prison system.
"This must not be allowed to continue. We call upon all those interested in human rights and social justice to help add their voice by supporting prisoners human rights by demanding an end to this situation immediately."