Coronavirus: 200 prisoners in Northern Ireland will be released early

Maghaberry Prison near Lisburn, Northern Ireland. (AP)

Some prisoners are set to be temporarily released from Northern Ireland's prisons as the government moves to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in jails.

Northern Ireland's justice minister Naomi Long announced that "fewer than 200" individuals who are entering the last three months of their sentence will be assessed against criteria for early release.

There are currently 1,521 prisoners in Northern Ireland.

Long said the move is due to dwindling staffing levels because 163 prison officers – out of a 1,200-strong workforce – are off-duty and self-isolating due to COVID-19.

Although there is yet to be a confirmed case of coronavirus in the region’s prisons, it is now considered "necessary to release some prisoners early”.

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Northern Ireland's justice minister Naomi Long said 'fewer than 200' individuals who are entering the last three months of their sentence will be assessed against criteria. (AP)

Early release will not apply to prisoners detained under the Mental Health Act, those convicted of serious offences like murder, sex or terror offences, or those deemed a risk.

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.

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“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.”

These released will be subject to a number of 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.

The release of these prisoners will mean that the number of inmates who are sharing cells would be reduced to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Read more: NHS doctor pleads for more coronavirus protective equipment

“We could, of course, open empty accommodation blocks at Maghaberry, but we would need additional staff to operate them and, with the staffing pressures we anticipate, this is simply not an option for us,” Long added.

The world’s jails and prisons are on high alert, instituting inmate screenings, sanitisation of jail cells and the scaling back or stopping of prison visits to prevent the virus from spreading.

The virus spread incredibly rapidly in China’s prisons early in March, with reports of hundreds of cases spreading across five facilities in three provinces.

Prison authorities in Iran have also released as many as 100,000 prisoners, according to the latest figures.

In the UK, the head of the Prison Officers' Association said there are not any plans yet to release prisoners, but Prison Service is taking steps to make ensure riots did not break out in UK prisons as they have in some Italian jails.

Human rights advocates have warned that increasing tensions over fears of coronavirus are hitting inmates particularly hard, especially after restrictions were imposed on family visits to prevent transmissions.

In Scotland, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said prisoners who were nearing the end of their sentences could be released as early as next week, in a plan similar to Northern Ireland’s.

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