Keeping Up Is Hard to Do:
A Trial Judge’s Reading Blog


Stewart, R. v [2020] NICA 62, at paragraphs 17 to 18:

We accept that the pandemic has affected the prison regime and that in particular prisoners have been deprived of face-to-face meetings with family.  The Northern Ireland Prison Service has, however, worked hard to minimise the impact upon the prison population.  The present position was set out by Colton J in R v Morgan [2020] NICC 14:

“[94]    In relation to the situation in Northern Ireland prisons I am informed by the prison authorities that any adult male who is sentenced will be transported to Maghaberry Prison where they will be interviewed and undergo a medical assessment.  In line with PHA guidance a prisoner will be placed in an isolation unit for 14 days to mitigate against the risk of Covid-19 entering the prison.  During this time they will be seen daily by healthcare staff, engaged multiple times daily by prison staff, will have access to telephones, showers, tuckshop and virtual visits.

[95]      Every prisoner will be given free phone credit to enhance family contact.  Pastoral support is available.  In-cell activity packs and in-cell distraction packs are also supplied. 

[96]      Where there is a particular vulnerability through age or health there are two shielding units which can be utilised if necessary.    

[97]      Newly sentenced prisoners will be screened by healthcare through Covid testing.  Any positive cases will be transferred to the area identified for positive cases.  To date as I understand it only one incident of Covid has been detected in the prison.  Within the isolation unit all staff wear PPE at all times and within the shielding unit staff wear masks when having face to face dealings with individual prisoners.

[98]      Extensive hand sanitising and infection control measures are provided within the prison environment.

[99]      I understand that with the exception of those in isolation units, all prisoners are unlocked as normal during the day and for evening association but are confined to their landing.  On 7 April NIPS introduced an extensive programme of virtual visits which have been widely used and have allowed prisoners to keep in contact with families.  NIPS in person visits, under new guidelines, began on 27 July.  The NIPS will continue to keep arrangements for visits and other elements of dealing with the pandemic under review.”

Given the steps taken by the Prison Service to deal with the issues arising from the pandemic we consider that there is much to be said for the approach espoused by Lady Dorrian.  We do not, therefore, accept that there should be any automatic increase in the discount allowed for a plea of guilty by reason of prison conditions.  We recognise, however, the force of the approach taken by McFarland J as he now is in respect of those who plead guilty and face up to their responsibilities during the pandemic.