Justice Minister Naomi Long has said the early release of prisoners in Northern Ireland is not a step to be taken lightly, but a necessary response to Covid-19.
There are concerns that coronavirus cases within the prison estate would place undue pressure on staff, so efforts are being made to reduce the prison population.
Stating that the global crisis has led to the consideration of “measures that only a few weeks ago would have been unthinkable”, Mrs Long outlined the steps already taken by the Northern Ireland Prison Service – including the suspension of visits.
“However, in anticipation of the time when we have a confirmed case among our prisoner population and our staffing levels - which are already under strain - come under further pressure, I now consider it necessary to release some prisoners early,” she said.
A total of 1,521 people are currently in the care of the Northern Ireland Prison Service – 1,050 who have been sentenced and 471 on remand.
The Justice Minister confirmed that greater use had been made of doubling up, where inmates share cells, and that such practice needed to be reduced amid the coronavirus spread.
“We could, of course, open empty accommodation blocks at Maghaberry, but we would need additional staff to operate them and, with the staffing pressures we anticipate, this is simply not an option for us,” she added.
It is anticipated that fewer than 200 prisoners will be released and they will be subject to conditions, including a curfew and bans on victim contact, alcohol, or any engagement with the media.
They will also be required to follow all Public Health Agency advice.
The prisoners affected will have been due for release over the next three months anyway and exclusions will apply on eligibility.
“I am conscious that, where possible, we must ensure the general public has maximum confidence in actions undertaken by the Prison Service,” Mrs Long said.
Those excluded will be prisoners:
- serving extended custodial sentences, indeterminate custodial sentences or life sentences
- serving sentences under a hospital order or transfer direction within the meaning of the Mental Health (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 (NI 4)
- serving sentences that engage the notification requirements of Part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003
- liable to removal from the United Kingdom at sentence completion point
- recalled from licence during their current sentence
- on restricted transfers from another jurisdiction
- subject to management under public protection arrangements or judged to present a risk of serious harm
- serving sentences for offences involving:
- homicide or manslaughter – (including any offence which has contributed to or led to the death of an individual or individuals)
- use or possession of explosives
- possession or use of a firearm or the use of an offensive weapon
- domestic violence or cruelty
- having been perpetrated on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation
Prisoners will also only be released if they have accommodation, adequate support and do not present a danger to themselves or others.
“I plan to keep this scheme under constant review,” the Justice Minister said.
“It will be closed when the current public health emergency is declared at an end by the United Kingdom Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.
“However, if conditions dictate, I will continue this scheme on a month-by-month basis from the end of April.
“This means that we will look at releasing temporarily those qualifying prisoners who are due to be released during the month of July at the beginning of May.”
Ulster Unionist Justice spokesperson Doug Beattie said that, having been kept informed through the Justice Minister, at the Justice Committee and in the Assembly, and having spoken with the Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, he was satisfied the action had been taken “in full knowledge of the vital importance of protecting the safety of the general public”.
He added that safeguards were in place, but noted: “Of course, some questions will arise - not least how you enforce an alcohol ban when the individual is confined to their home, and how will they play catch up with the benefits system in such a short period of time?
“These are issues to be answered when the time comes, but for now, the Justice Minister has the support of the Ulster Unionist Party in taking this action.
“We are clear and mindful that this decision was not taken lightly or in isolation, but in order to protect prisoners, prison staff and aid in the fight against Covid-19.”
SDLP Justice spokesperson Patsy McGlone MLA said the early release scheme must be carefully managed and that victims of crime must be kept informed.
“I am glad that the Justice Minister has confirmed, following questions in the Assembly, that prisoners will not be released where they have complex needs that are being supported by the Prison Service at present,” he said.
“We should not be adding to the pressure of public services that are already struggling to cope with demand in the middle of this crisis.
“We must be assured, however, that anyone who is released will have a robust support network around them.”
Mr McGlone added: “It is imperative, also, that victims of crime are kept fully informed about this process and the release of any prisoner to a community that may cause distress for a victim is managed carefully and sensitively.
“People are under immense emotional strain at the minute. Every step must be taken to ensure that is not made needlessly worse.”
The SDLP politician also called for additional measures to safeguard the health of the staff and prisoners who will remain on site throughout the pandemic.
Justice Minister Naomi Long spoke on UTV Live at 6:
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