Inmates have gone missing from Northern Ireland’s prisons almost 250 times during the last decade.
Most of the cases relate to inmates who were unlawfully at large from Maghaberry Prison, near Lisburn.
On more than 100 occasions prisoners were taken back to custody within the same month of going missing.
But on several occasions inmates were missing for years and a prison watchdog has raised fresh concerns.
The chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland said when prisoners fail to return to custody it can “impact community confidence and raise public safety concerns”.
The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) said pre-release testing is a vital part of rehabilitation and resettlement for inmates.
A spokesperson added: “After being fully risk assessed, they begin graduated release into the community.
“Firstly under supervision, then progressing to short periods of unaccompanied release where they work in the community.
“The reality is that some will fail this test and will be returned to prison, while others will progress back into the community.”
As of November 2023 there were seven prisoners still unlawfully at large in Northern Ireland.
Prisoners can be temporarily released for a number of reasons including compassionate leave or as part of rehabilitation and release planning under a range of schemes including home leave.
Unlawfully at large
Earlier this year there was a UK-wide manhunt for terror suspect Daniel Khalife after he escaped from Wandsworth Prison in September.
He absconded from a prison kitchen by strapping himself to the underside of a delivery van.
He was re-arrested four days later.
There have also been a number of high-profile cases of prisoners going missing in Northern Ireland in recent months.
Convicted murderer Thomas McCabe went on the run for the second time after failing to return to prison from day release in August.
He was previously at large for more than two years before being arrested by gardaí (Irish police) in 2020.
Figures obtained by BBC News NI from the Northern Ireland Prison Service show that of the 244 instances of prisoners going missing in Northern Ireland during the last decade, most were apprehended again within a month.
On 85 occasions, prisoners released by the courts on compassionate bail did not return to prison on time.
A spokesperson of the Lady Chief Justice’s Office said: “The courts are required to apply the law governing bail as laid down in this jurisdiction and will hear all the arguments for and against admission to bail/variation of bail taking account of all relevant factors before arriving at a considered decision.”
On five occasions prisoners were missing for more than a year and the longest an inmate was unlawfully at large was four years and one month.
During the last decade the prison service also made 14 compensation payments in relation to inmates who were accidentally held beyond their sentence.
The prison service did not provide a detailed breakdown of these figures, confirming only that half of the inmates were paid up to £1,000 and the remaining inmates were paid more than £1,000.
A spokesperson confirmed 11 prisoners were overheld between one to five days and the remaining inmates were overheld by more than five days.
There are three prisons sites in Northern Ireland at Maghaberry, Magilligan and Hydebank Wood College and Female Prison.
In 2019, Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) published a report looking at pre-release testing arrangements.
Concerns were raised with the then-justice minister, and public confidence in the process was challenged, after a prisoner absconded and others were photographed during an escorted activity outing.
At that time, CJI made a number of recommendations to improve the system.
The most recent inspection of Maghaberry Prison published in June 2023 noted that pre-release planning at the prison was “well co-ordinated”.
The chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland said it was important that risk assessments are robust to support all decisions to release a prisoner temporarily.
Jacqui Durkin said: “The temporary release of prisoners is an important part of a prisoner’s rehabilitative journey that can inform decision-making in assessing a prisoner’s suitability for release back into the community.
“While it will never be risk free, conditions of release are an important part of the process for maintaining public safety and those who know the prisoner best and have been working with them are well placed to inform appropriate decisions and conditions.”
She added that pre-release schemes will remain a focus for CJI in future prison inspections.
In a statement, the Northern Ireland Prison Service said: “Pre-release testing is an essential part of rehabilitation, not just for the individual but also for the wider community in Northern Ireland.”
Source : BBC