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Call for prisoner releases to be considered as more than 160 officers self-isolate

Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty said alternatives to detention should be considered for prisoners with underlying medical conditions and the elderly.

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Amnesty’s Patrick Corrigan has urged Justice Minister Naomi Long to consider the release of some prisoners amid the impact of Covid-19 on prison staff and inmates in Northern Ireland (Prison Service/PA)

Amnesty’s Patrick Corrigan has urged Justice Minister Naomi Long to consider the release of some prisoners amid the impact of Covid-19 on prison staff and inmates in Northern Ireland (Prison Service/PA)

Amnesty’s Patrick Corrigan has urged Justice Minister Naomi Long to consider the release of some prisoners amid the impact of Covid-19 on prison staff and inmates in Northern Ireland (Prison Service/PA)

Prisoner releases in Northern Ireland should be considered during the coronavirus pandemic, Amnesty International has said.

The department of justice has confirmed that 163 prison officers out of a 1,200 strong workforce in Northern Ireland are self-isolating due to Covid-19.

At Maghaberry prison, one prisoner is currently self isolating in “specially located accommodation away from the general population”.

Coronavirus
A man walking a dog strolls past graffiti on the Lower Newtownards Road in Belfast with the writing, Wash Your Hands, We’re In This Together. (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Prison Service told PA news agency there has been no confirmed cases of Covid-19 within those with its care or among prison staff.

Earlier Amnesty International urged Justice Minister Naomi Long to consider releasing some prisoners at heightened risk from the virus.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International UK’s Northern Ireland programme director, said prisoners with underlying medical conditions and the elderly should be immediately considered for alternatives to detention if they do not pose a threat to themselves or society.

“And there should be a presumption of release for people charged with a criminal offence who are awaiting trial,” he said.

“Government should also consider amending sentencing guidance for judges to recommend non-custodial measures for people who have been convicted of lesser criminal offences.

Those shown to have an underlying health condition making them more susceptible to the effects of the virus should be considered for release on bail immediately.Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International

“Decreasing the prison population and the number of people in immigration detention centres, such as Larne House, is a crucial means of slowing the spread of Covid-19 and keeping people safe.”

Mr Corrigan continued: “Those shown to have an underlying health condition making them more susceptible to the effects of the virus should be considered for release on bail immediately, as should any vulnerable detainees and prisoners who don’t pose a risk to society.

“It is important that the concerns of victims are taken into consideration and help inform decisions regarding releases.

“For those who remain in detention, the authorities must provide a standard of health that meets each person’s individual needs, ensuring the maximum possible protection against the spread of Covid-19.”

Responding in a statement, the Prison Service said: “Specific contingency planning structures are in place with a dedicated team to support Prison Governors.

“The Prison Service has also taken significant steps to reduce the number of people coming into our prisons. This has included the suspension of prison visits and home leave arrangements with only essential prison and healthcare staff being admitted to our prisons.

“From this morning we have moved to a reduced regime across the three establishments. This means that all prisoners, with the exception of essential workers, will be required to remain in their accommodation block and areas such as the prison gyms and the Chapels have been closed.

“No decisions have been taken regarding prisoner releases. Any decision will be based on a strict criteria and will be taken in full consultation with the Justice Minister.”

PA