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Decision to temporarily free 200 inmates in Northern Ireland sparks fears from victims

Naomi Long

Justice Minister Naomi Long has said she had "no alternative" but to temporarily release up to 200 prisoners in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, prisoners serving a life sentence, detained under the mental health act, those serving a sentence for a terrorist offence and those deemed a risk are among those who will not be eligible for release under the scheme.

Mrs Long said she anticipates the release of fewer than 200 individuals and each will be assessed against certain criteria.

The charity Victim Support NI said many victims will feel "devastated" by the decision.

Last week the Department of Justice said 163 prison officers out of a 1,200-strong workforce are self-isolating due to Covid-19. There are currently 1,521 prisoners in Northern Ireland.

The Alliance Party leader described the release of prisoners as a "significant one which should only be taken when there is no alternative".

The UUP's justice spokesperson Doug Beattie said Mrs Long has the support of his party in taking the action, while Amnesty International added that the decision is in the best interests of both prisoners and prison officers.

There is yet to be a confirmed case of coronavirus in Northern Ireland's prisons, but Mrs Long said that, in anticipation of that moment and strained staffing levels, she now "considers it necessary to release some prisoners early".

"Such a move is contrary to the ethos of the justice system and will cause distress to victims and their families," she continued.

"However, in the context of the pandemic we are facing, and to ensure as far as possible the safety and wellbeing of staff and those in our care, it is, I believe, an appropriate and reasonable step.

"These individuals will be subject to a number of Northern Ireland Prison Service applied conditions including a curfew, a requirement to follow all Public Health Agency guidance during the current emergency period, a ban on victim contact, an alcohol ban and a ban on having any engagement with the media."

She added that prisoners released under Rule 27 can be recalled at any stage, whether their conditions have been broken or not.

Victim Support NI said it recognised that prisons are "high risk environments" and that there is a duty of care to prisoners and staff but expressed concern for victims.

"They may be angry that prisoners serving sentences they already felt to be too short given the nature of the crime will now be free before completing their sentence," the charity said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Mr Beattie, an Upper Bann MLA, said that "some questions will arise" over how conditions can be enforced, such as the alcohol ban as prisoners will be confined to their homes, but stated they can be answered "when the time comes".

Amnesty International UK's NI programme director, Patrick Corrigan, added that the Justice Minister should also consider the temporary release of older prisoners and those with an underlying health condition.

He also said those who remain in detention must be provided with a standard of care that meets each prisoner's needs.

Belfast Telegraph