Plans for a phased recommencement of family visits to prisons have been outlined by the Irish Prison Service. 

The Irish Prison Service has said it has been committed to the early return of physical family visits as soon as it was considered safe to do so.

Video visits were implemented after physical visits were suspended in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Prior to that, 4,500 visitors entered prisons on a weekly basis. 

The Prison Service has said that in order to safely accommodate visitors and ensure compliance with social distancing requirements, the capacity and frequency of visits will be limited for a time. 

In a statement it has said that visits will recommence on a phased basis. 

The Irish Penal Reform Trust has welcomed plans to resume physical family visits in Irish prisons. 

The Executive Director of the IPRT, Fíona Ní Chinnéide, says that the phased return to visits from 20 July is "great news". 

"Maintaining positive family contact has multiple benefits. We know this reduces the re-offending on release from prison. But more importantly, every child under the UN convention on the rights of the child has a right to regular contact with their parents. They cannot be discriminated against on the basis of the status of their parent," she said. 

Ms Ní Chinnéide says that there are around 6,000 children in Ireland with a mother or father in prison, and that they have not seen their parents since early March, before Covid-19 struck. 

The Irish Prison Service introduced video calls when visiting was suspended to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Ms Ní Chinnéide said this was a positive development, but added that it is now important that restrictions are eased in line with public health advice. 

She said that moving forward, it is important that video calls are retained as an option for families, but "not as a replacement for physical visits for those who want them."

The IPRT says that easing of restrictions in prisons needs to be in line with public health advice, and that security concerns "cannot be a reason for maintaining restrictions". 

"If the virus is suppressed in the community and if we maintain the progress we have made, we will be asking the prison service to escalate the relaxation. But of course, we will have to see how this goes", she said. 

Irish prisons model best practice on handling Covid-19

Prisons and inmates adapt to restrictions posed by Covid-19

Meanwhile a paper outlining how the Irish Prison Service has kept Covid-19 out its settings has been published by the Oxford University Press. 

The article, which is on the Journal of Public Health website, describes the approach to contact tracing taken by the Irish Prison Service.

It outlines the methods taken by the prison National Infection Control Team and the National Quality Improvement team, working with the Health Service Executive, to implement a programme developing and training in-prison contact tracing teams.

The paper points out that contact tracing teams were run by prison staff with experience of working with detainees.

The paper concludes that a partnership approach with development of prison-led contact tracing teams can provide an effective mechanism for contact tracing of Covid-19 cases within the prison setting.

None of the 3,705 prisoners nationwide tested for the virus since it arrived in Ireland at the end of February.

Prisons worldwide have contacted the Irish Prison Service for advice on how to keep the virus out of their settings.

Additional reporting Laura Hogan