Thursday, 29 January 2004

Questions (6)

Mary Upton

Question:

5 Dr. Upton asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the number of prisoners currently absent without leave from prisons as a result of escapes or failure to return from temporary release; the steps being taken to deal with this problem; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2503/04]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

I want to dispel any belief that there is a major security issue in this area. In this context I would like to refer the Deputy to Question No. 403 answered on 18 November 2003 which gives background material on the issue.

It is important to note that the vast majority of prisoners who have actually become unlawfully at large over the years are persons who absconded from one of the open prisons or who failed to return from a period of temporary release, but a large number are actually people who were released, perhaps only a matter of weeks before the end of a sentence, and who failed to sign on at the prison every week — one of the conditions of the release. In most of these cases, the offender is very much at the lower end of the risk to the public spectrum. The gardaí are informed where prisoners are unlawfully at large and have the power to detain, arrest, and return such persons to prison. It is also the case that, as the vast majority of persons on this list were nearing the end of their sentences they would, in the absence of them being at large, now have been released back into the community in any case.

Over the years, a substantial number of prisoners have failed to comply with the requirement to sign on at the prison. However, the vast majority of prisoners who have failed to comply with the condition of their temporary release have not come to notice in respect of any further offences. The list of people currently shown as "unlawfully at large", which amounts to 666, would include many such people. As reported previously, the lists are subject to an ongoing examination to check their accuracy and it is anticipated that this process, when completed, will lead to a more realistic and significantly reduced figure.

To put this in context, the number of prisoners who escaped from closed prison custody and who are still at large is negligible and no major criminal figures are involved. No prisoner escaped from a closed prison in 2003. Three prisoners absconded from a trustee area of the Dóchas Centre for a brief period and were quickly recaptured.

I would also like to highlight the fact that the construction of additional prison spaces has significantly reduced the number of persons released on unstructured periods of temporary release. This has had a knock-on effect on the numbers at large as a significant proportion of those on the unlawfully at large list are a hangover from the revolving door syndrome which was prevalent in the 1990s. It is worth recording at this stage that similar lists from 1997 indicated that there were upwards of 1500 prisoners "at large" at any one time.