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The 'doomsday' plan if coronavirus hits Northern Ireland's prisons

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Ronnie Armour, Director General of Northern Ireland Prison Service. Credit: Michael Cooper

Ronnie Armour, Director General of Northern Ireland Prison Service. Credit: Michael Cooper

Ronnie Armour, Director General of Northern Ireland Prison Service. Credit: Michael Cooper

Prison chiefs are considering a coronavirus 'doomsday' plan that would involve officers who fall sick in work isolating in specially adapted cells.

Sources say the measure is one of several extreme proposals being considered by bosses at Northern Ireland's three jails - Maghaberry, Magilligan and Hydebank College - which hold 1,650 inmates.

Unlike schools, prisons cannot be closed down, need to be constantly staffed and require face-to-face contact between officers and prisoners.

In the event of a Covid-19 outbreak they would be a breeding ground for infection, something jail bosses are working overtime to prevent.

Other measures they are considering include banning visits, suspending temporary release schemes and putting prisoners in 24-hour lock-up.

Sources say this is to protect, not punish, inmates, many of whom suffer from underlying medical conditions making them more at risk.

"Obviously staff are very worried that if there is an outbreak in one of our jails prison officers along with inmates will fall sick," said a Maghaberry insider.

"We've been told that if that happens isolation quarters will be made available. These are likely to be specially adapted cells which officers and prisoners will be put in."

Our source explained how in the case of a lockdown inmates could use apps like Facetime and Skype to speak to their families.

He said: "This is another measure being considered. These proposals are designed for a worst case scenario if there is a corona outbreak in a prison. But the priority at the moment is to keep the virus out, and that is the responsibility of everyone, staff and visitors alike."

So far there have been no cases of Covid-19 recorded in any of Northern Ireland's jails.

Prison Service director general Ronnie Armour told Sunday Life: "Preparations by the Prison Service have included developing specific areas for isolation, where prisoners suspected or diagnosed with having the virus can be accommodated.

"Additional protective clothing for staff has also been purchased and information is being communicated to all staff and prisoners regarding practising good hygiene."

cbarnes@sundaylife.co.uk

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