Up to 200 inmates will be first to get early release amid coronavirus

Up to 200 inmates will be first in UK to get early release amid coronavirus crisis as Northern Ireland takes drastic action to protect prisoners and staff

  • Justice Minister Naomi Long said she thinks it is ‘necessary to release prisoners’ 
  • Some 163 prison officers out of 1,200-strong workforce are self-isolating  
  • High risk prisoners will not be eligible for Ms Long’s early release 
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

Up to 200 prisoners will be given a temporary early release in Northern Ireland in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.   

There is yet to be a confirmed case of coronavirus in the region’s prisons, but Northern Ireland Justice Minister, Naomi 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.

Ms Long described the decision as a ‘significant one which should only be taken when there is no alternative’.

The temporary early release of up to 200 prisoners has been announced by Northern Ireland justice minister Naomi Long. Pictured is Crumlin Road Gaol jail in Belfast 

‘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.

‘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.’

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