Northern Ireland

Close to 40% of all prison inmates not convicted as overall population increasing rapidly

Nearly half of all inmates in Maghaberry on remand on one day last week

Maghaberry Prison
Maghaberry Prison. the north's largest

Close to half of all inmates inside Northern Ireland’s largest prison on a single day last week were not convicted of any offence, it has emerged amid a sharp increase in the overall population behind bars.

The lack of suitable accommodation for those accused of offences and backlogs across the justice system are among the reasons cited for the large number of individuals being held on remand.

Last week, of the 1,255 inmates in Maghaberry, 594, or 47%, were on remand, Justice Minister Naomi Long revealed in a written answer to an Assembly question. At Hydebank, a facility for younger offenders and women, half of the 134 inmates had not yet been convicted of an offence.

Justice Minister Naomi Long pictured during a visit to Maghaberry Prison with governor David Kennedy
Justice Minister Naomi Long pictured during a visit to Maghaberry Prison with governor David Kennedy

The vast majority of the near 500 prisoners inside Magilligan in Co Derry were convicted of offences. In total, 37% of all inmates were on remand last month, compared to 23% in Scotland and 19% in England and Wales.

The total average per head population remains lower than in Britain, though higher than the Republic. The number in the north is approximately 99 per 100,000 compared to around 144 per 100,000 across England, Scotland and Wales last month.

However, the total population has increased at a rapid rate in recent years, with a count on March 1 of 1,879, a 34% increase on the 1,401 behind bars on the same day three years ago.

Ms Long said it would be “grossly unfair” to place the burden and responsibility of increasing inmate numbers solely on the Prison Service.

“Prison is the end of the line – much more needs to be done upstream. Of course, issues such as speeding up justice and remand numbers fall to the wider justice system and that is something I am firmly focused on,” Ms Long said.

Homeless figures
Large percentage of individuals arriving in prison report staying with friends or living in hostels or on the streets

She added: “However, drug and alcohol addiction, poor levels of education, additional educational needs and poor physical and mental health are all magnified in our prisons.

“Imagine what could be achieved if we collectively focus on prevention rather than detention of people. That is why I say prison issues are not just a justice responsibility – they go much wider and much deeper into our society.”

A Prison Population Oversight Group was established late last year with the aim of limiting the prison population, or mitigating the impact of any increase.

While backlogs in the court system likely is responsible in part for the larger percentage on remand, accommodation is also an issue.

Backlogs in the court system likely a reason for large percentage on remand

The Courts Service has captured data showing only a small percentage refused bail due to having no suitable accommodation but information revealed by new inmates suggests it is a significant issue.

A third of those committed to Maghaberry during 2023 had either come from temporary arrangements with a friend or family member, a hostel, were living on the streets or in a night shelter.