Fury at £400k bill for luxuries and treats inside Northern Ireland jails
Thousands of pounds have been spent treating prisoners at Northern Ireland’s jails to movie nights, snooker evenings and even yoga classes, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Inmates who already have access to facilities including Sky TV and state-of-the-art gym equipment have been handed dozens of other luxuries by prison bosses.
They include parties for prisoners’ families and items such as tobacco, newspapers for foreign inmates and special treats at Christmas and Easter.
The news comes as the man in charge of Northern Ireland’s prison system today rejects suggestions that inmates have a comfortable life.
However, there is anger at the expenditure, with the chairman of the Stormont justice committee claiming prison bosses are producing money “like a conjurer pulling a rabbit from his hat” to care for prisoners.
More than £400,000 has been spent in the last three years, using money from the prisoners’ amenity fund.
The Prison Service insisted it was not directly funded by the taxpayer, but is financed from “a range of sources”.
The purchases include £1,938 spent on foreign newspapers at the high-security Maghaberry jail, whose prisoners include two violent Lithuanians who beat a Dungannon shopkeeper to death because he was gay.
At Hydebank Wood — home to inmates including Eamonn Coyle who strangled his grandfather for £80 rent — hundreds of pounds were shelled out for movie nights and snooker evenings.
A family party event in 2008-09 cost £380, while another £50 was spent on a puppet show for prisoners’ children.
And at Magiligan prison, £4,407 was spent on parties for inmates’ children, £300 went towards “fly tying classes”, while yoga classes cost a further £3,505.
Across the three prisons, £52,513 was spent on “Christmas expenditure”.
Justice committee chairman Lord Morrow accused authorities of treating prisoners better than victims of crime.
“We are living in austere times, finance is scarce, and many people have lost their jobs, and yet the Prison Service appears to be able to access funds to maintain criminals’ comfort.
“I’m not aware of any occasion when finance has been produced like a conjurer pulling a rabbit from his hat to provide additional resources for victims of crime.
“The revelation that hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent on entertainment and other benefits for prisoners will rankle with all law-abiding people, and in particular with these criminals’ victims.”
SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt, who also sits on the justice committee, denied inmates’ life is comfortable, but said more funds should be allocated to education in prisons.
“Prisoners here do not have it easy,” he said. “However, our prison regime at present is entirely unfit for purpose.
“We are spending too much time and money keeping prisoners happy when instead we should be investing in education, skills and rehabilitation.
Prison Service director general Colin McConnell, who took charge in January, has already ordered a review into the prisoners’ amenities fund.
But he has denied that prisons are becoming a soft option for inmates.
“Yes there are drama classes, yoga classes and so on which, taken as an individual example, could be seen as inappropriate.
“But what we do know is that by engaging people to make them behave more calmly and reasonably and to help them to think through the behaviour which led them to offending in the first place, that gives us the best chance to work with them positively so that they might not reoffend when they return to the community,” he said.