The temporary early release of up to 200 prisoners has been announced by Northern Ireland justice minister Naomi Long.
There is yet to be a confirmed case of coronavirus in the region’s prisons, but Ms Long said that, in anticipation of that moment and strained staffing levels, she now “considers it necessary to release some prisoners early”.
Last week the department of justice said 163 prison officers out of a 1,200-strong workforce are self-isolating due to Covid-19.
Minister Naomi Long has today issued a Written Ministerial Statement regarding the temporary early release of some sentenced prisoners @NIPrisons #Covid_19— Justice NI (@Justice_NI) March 30, 2020
For the full statement visit https://t.co/1qOyzzLiMe pic.twitter.com/s9ibEPUEx7
Ms Long described the decision as a “significant one which should only be taken when there is no alternative”.
“Such a move is contrary to the ethos of the justice system and will cause distress to victims and their families,” she said.
“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.”
Ms Long said she anticipates the release of fewer than 200 individuals and each will be assessed against criteria.
There are currently 1,521 prisoners in Northern Ireland.
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 early release.
“These individuals will be subject to a number of NIPS 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 said.
The challenges over the coming days will be great and in closing it is right that I pay tribute to the staff of the Northern Ireland Prison Service who on our behalf are providing a vital public service in the most difficult of circumstancesNaomi Long
“It is important to note that prisoners released under Rule 27 may be recalled to prison at any time, whether release conditions have been broken or not.”
The minister added: “The challenges over the coming days will be great and in closing it is right that I pay tribute to the staff of the Northern Ireland Prison Service who on our behalf are providing a vital public service in the most difficult of circumstances.
“The work of prison staff is seldom seen but it should never be underestimated.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie supported Ms Long’s announcement.
“Of course some questions will arise, not least how you enforce an alcohol ban when the individual is confined to their home, and how will they play catch-up with the benefits system in such a short period of time,” he said.
“These are issues to be answered when the time comes, but for now the justice minister has the support of the Ulster Unionist Party in taking this action.
Decreasing the prison population is a crucial means of slowing the spread of Covid-19 and keeping both prisoners and prison staff safePatrick Corrigan, Amnesty International
“We are clear and mindful that this decision was not taken lightly or in isolation but in order to protect prisoners, prison staff and aid in the fight against Covid-19.”
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone called for careful management of the scheme.
“There is a clear need to protect people working for and in the care of the Prison Service from the impact of coronavirus, particularly where there are instances of ‘doubling up’ in cells,” he said.
“A highly regulated release scheme is, in our view, appropriate but it must be managed carefully to protect prisoners and the victims of crime.
“We must be assured, however, that anyone who is released will have a robust support network around them.”
Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International UK’s Northern Ireland programme director, said it was a “difficult but correct decision”.
“Decreasing the prison population is a crucial means of slowing the spread of Covid-19 and keeping both prisoners and prison staff safe,” he said.
“In addition to those prisoners who were due to be released automatically during the next three months, the justice minister should also consider a temporary release of older prisoners and those with an underlying health condition who would be more susceptible to the effects of the virus.”