Northern Ireland jail cell costlier than hotel room
The average cost of keeping a prisoner in Northern Ireland has been revealed as £158 a night - more than a stay in a four-star hotel in Belfast.
Justice Minister Claire Sugden said the average annual cost per prisoner was £57,643.
The average overnight cost of a room at a four-star hotel in Belfast at present is £101 - around a third cheaper over a year.
Ms Sugden said the segregation of paramilitary inmates and the relatively low prison population contributed to the figure.
The price is considerably more than in England and Wales, where the average nightly cost is £96 for prisoners - £35,182 annually.
Scotland has the lowest costs at £92 per day, or £34,399 per year.
DUP MLA Jim Wells - who raised the issue of costs - said the Justice Minister needed to "stop hiding behind the Troubles".
He added that "the public won't be able to understand why it costs more than a room in a four-star hotel to keep a prisoner. It just doesn't seem right".
Ms Sugden described comparisons with prisons in Britain as unhelpful.
"The same range of services must be provided within a relatively small prison population and therefore economies of scale lead to costs in Northern Ireland being higher," she said.
She added that the price of Prison Service headquarters' overheads, prisoner transport and property costs were not included in Britain's figures.
Ms Sugden said having to keep paramilitary prisoners in separate areas "increases running costs and reduces the operational flexibility of accommodation".
"Another factor, which increases the differential, is that during the Troubles staff received higher salaries due to the increased risks associated with working with paramilitary prisoners."
The Justice Minister pointed out that, since 2010, costs per prisoner had decreased by £16,119 - from £73,762 to £57,643.
This was achieved through a voluntary early retirement scheme for warders and the construction of new accommodation.
Mr Wells said the figures showed prison spending had become "grossly inefficient".
"We're paying 45% more to keep a prisoner than Scotland," he said.
"The minister's hidden behind the Troubles. The fact is that most criminals now are ODCs (ordinary decent criminals), drunk drivers, drug addicts, thieves etc.
"They're exactly the same criminals as in the rest of the UK, but for some strange reason it costs far more to keep them here.
"We're not talking about staying in the Europa, as you know. It's very basic accommodation, there's no sauna or manicures."
The Prison Service has been under increasing pressure recently after three inmates died in Maghaberry in November alone - two by suicide and one by an apparent drugs overdose this week.
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said it confirmed the Prison Service was in "crisis" and called for an urgent increase in jail staffing levels.
Finlay Spratt, chair of the Prison Officers Association, has been highly critical of budget cuts.
He warned that after the voluntary redundancy scheme of 2010-11 prison officers were now overstretched, and he feared more inmates' deaths would follow.
In November warders in Maghaberry and Magilligan voted in favour of industrial action up to, and including, strike action.
Mr Wells called the recent deaths "absolute tragedies".
"I think the Justice Minister needs to have a review of the prison costs - she needs to see what is different. Where is the extra £20,000 per prisoner being spent?"