By Agence France-Presse
Around 200 prisoners will be temporarily released from Northern Irish jails in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus in the inmate population, the province’s justice minister said Monday.
“If we are to manage the rapidly developing crisis we are facing, it is vital that we begin now to take steps to reduce our prisoner population,” Naomi Long said in a statement.
Long added the regional prison service would “anticipate the release of fewer than 200 individuals” from its population of around 1,500.
The minister said she would use the powers open to her office to free “those prisoners who are due to be released automatically during the next three months”.
Numerous categories of prisoners will not be eligible for the temporary release, including those serving life sentences or held for serious matters including domestic violence, terror and murder convictions.
Those released will be subject to a curfew, as well as bans on victim contact, alcohol and media engagement.
They will also be subject to recall to prison at any time regardless of whether these conditions are violated.
As of Monday morning there had been 533 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Northern Ireland, and 22 deaths attributed to it, according to the region’s public health officials.
A smaller inmate population will allow the Northern Ireland Prison Service to reduce the practice of inmates “doubling up” in cells, to allow “social distancing” measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Long said the “pandemic is causing us to consider measures that only a few weeks ago would have been unthinkable”.
Britain has thus far had 19,522 confirmed case of the coronavirus and 1,228 deaths.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said Monday that officials were “actively looking at” the release of some “vulnerable” inmates from English and Welsh jails.
It is thought a small number of pregnant women in prisons in the two nations could be temporarily released due to the pandemic.