Northern Ireland news

Almost 400 inmates granted temporary release to help prisons cope with pandemic challenges

The remand population increased by 10.8 per cent from 492 to 545 this year. Picture by Michael Cooper/PA Wire

THE number of people in prison awaiting trial is at its highest number since reporting began after Covid-19 restrictions caused delays in the justice system.

Department of Justice statistics reveal almost 400 inmates were granted temporary release to help prisons cope with pandemic challenges.

Prison Rule 27 (Temporary Release) "to manage the prison population during the health emergency" was needed, despite the number of "receptions" (new inmates) 1,000 fewer than the year before.

There were 395 prisoners released temporarily in the three months before their actual release date under the scheme, which was suspended from April 1 2021.

And the high number of remand prisoners comes despite a fall of 12.6 per cent, from 3,310 in 2019/20 to 2,894.

There was also a decrease in the number of immediate custody receptions by 29.8 per cent from 1,734 to 1,218.

`The Northern Ireland Prison Population 2020/21' report analyses average daily prison population and the number of receptions into sites over 12 months,

The period covers with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic which the department said "has had an impact throughout the justice system, with lockdowns and other restrictions severely affecting court processing times".

This led to a large increase in remand figures, however, there was also a big decrease in immediate custody figures and receptions leading to an overall decrease in the average daily prison population of 4.5 per cent.

The number of men in jail fell from 1,442 to 1,393, while the female population decreased from 74 to 55.

But the remand population increased by 10.8 per cent from 492 to 545 this year - its highest level since reporting by financial year began in 2014/15.

This follows a trend of growing numbers of remand prisoners in the north's jails - from 23.3 per cent during 2014/15 to 24.7 per cent during 2015/16, 25.4 per cent during 2016/17, 25.6 per cent during 2017/18, 30.1 per cent during 2018/19 and 32.4 per cent during 2019/20, reaching 37.7 per cent last year.

However, the average daily `immediate custody' prison population dropped by 11.8 per cent to 898 - the lowest level since the reporting began.

There has been "slight" increases in the number of people in custody on `life' and `greater than five years but less than life' sentences.

The largest proportion (35.9 per cent) of prisoners have been convicted of `violence against the person' offences, and along with Public Order offences they accounted for the largest proportion of immediate custody receptions.

A larger proportion of new female inmates (86.8 per cent) had been sentenced to a custody sentence length of one year or less compared to 76.2 per cent of males.

However, the number of people entering prison for fine default fell by 32.4 per cent from 222 in 2019/20 to 150 in 2020/21.

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