93 NI prisoners released to enjoy festive period with their families
A total of 93 prisoners have been allowed home for the Christmas holidays, the Northern Ireland Prison Service has said.
Varying periods of leave have been granted up until January 3, with conditions imposed on all applicants.
Maghaberry Prison is opening the cell doors for 51 inmates, with 35 from Magilligan also permitted home.
Four young men and three women have also been released from Hydebank Wood College.
The number granted leave this year is down slightly from last Christmas which saw 108 prisoners released for the holidays. The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) has said it will not release any details about the prisoners involved.
All those selected must pass a risk assessment, either successfully completing a home leave programme or being allowed periods of unaccompanied testing in the community. Life prisoners must be within three years of finishing their sentence.
They also require a Parole Commissioner recommendation for pre-release testing in the community, and will also have completed a period of overnight unaccompanied pre-release testing.
For those serving an extended sentence, the requirements are less strict and inmates can be considered if they have served at least half of their time behind bars. Only prisoners sentenced on or before October 31 this year can be considered, and those on remand are not eligible for Christmas Home Leave.
At unlock this morning, it was reported that 1,445 inmates were being held in prisons across Northern Ireland.
However, the NIPS website states that five prisoners are currently at large after failing to return home from leave.
They include 29-year-old James Dunne, who was sentenced for attempted robbery and has been absent since July 29 last year after being granted home leave from Magilligan, County Londonderry, and Thomas O'Brien (33), who was imprisoned for causing death by dangerous driving, and has been missing since he was on pre-release from Magilligan on July 16, 2002.
Devidas Palitus (27) who has been charged with rape, has been missing from Maghaberry for more than six years, since September 30, 2010.
And Frank Shanley (30), accused of theft, has been at large since May 17, 2006, after taking part in a pre-release scheme from Maghaberry.
Brendan McGuinness (19) was jailed for drug offences but failed to return to Hydebank Wood after being let out on a pre-release scheme on May 2, 2002.
This year has been a turbulent one for the prison system here, with a string of prisoner deaths in custody resulting in frequent criticism of stretched resources and under-staffing. In November alone, three inmates died at Maghaberry, two by what is believed to have been suicide and one due to an apparent drugs overdose.
Over 12 months, six prisoners died in Maghaberry, with four understood to have taken their own life.
Complaining of chronic staff shortages, in November prison officers in Maghaberry and Magilligan voted in favour of industrial action up to and including holding strikes, with officers in Hydebank voting against action.
This week the Prison Officers Association voted in a new chairman, Adrian Smith, to replace Finlay Spratt who served in the position for 31 years.