Priority Questions. - Prisoner Releases.

Alan Shatter

Ceist:

82 Mr. Shatter asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the number of times each of the prisoners sentenced to imprisonment for the unlawful killing of a garda (details supplied) have benefited from temporary release; the number of days of release in each case; the dates of each such release; the reasons for each such release; and the reason the spouse of the deceased person was not given prior notification of each such release. [27698/01]

Of the four persons convicted of the unlawful killing of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe, three have been granted a single period of temporary release since their committal to prison custody. These temporary releases took place in October 2000, December 2000 and earlier this month. The fourth prisoner has had three such temporary releases which took place in October 2000, January 2001 and in April 2001. Each release consisted of a period of three overnights and were granted in accordance with standard criteria that have applied in such cases. In all cases, leave was granted on compassionate grounds. Deputies will be aware that compassionate leave concessions were available to paramilitary prisoners long before the Good Friday Agreement came to be negotiated and before any ceasefires were in place.

The Minister of State, on my behalf, in the course of Private Notice Questions in the House on 13 and 14 December last, stated that I was arranging for procedures to be put in place to ensure the victim's family be informed when short-term compassionate parole was being granted in these cases. Such procedures have been implemented and in the most recent instance, the Garda authorities and the victim's spouse were informed in advance of the impending temporary release.

The position in relation to the question of any early release for these prisoners has been stated on numerous occasions by both myself and An Taoiseach. In addition, I wish to state that two of the prisoners in question have applied to the courts seeking release under the Good Friday Agreement. The Government will defend fully its position in these proceedings.

Is the Minister aware of the widespread perception that those found guilty in our courts of the killing of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe are having a particularly easy time in one of the more luxurious prison institutions, that they are free to run their personal lives from that institution and that they are allowed time out in circumstances that do not comply with the usual compassionate grounds cited by the Minister? Will the Minister specifically indicate the compassionate grounds relating to those prisoners granted temporary release? Will he inform the House whether any information has come to his attention which indicates that the bases upon which such temporary releases were sought were fraudulent? Is the Minister aware that the widow of the late Garda Jerry McCabe, Ann McCabe, has expressed concern that she only learns of these events at the last minute and is not given any reasonable or practical notice of such releases? In light of assurances given to me in this House almost a year ago to which the Minister just referred, what action does the Minister propose to take to tackle this matter?

The details sought by Deputy Shatter on the temporary releases are as follows: Prisoner Kevin Walsh was granted three overnights to visit his sick father in November of this year; Pearse McAuley was granted three overnights to visit his sick father in October 2000 and January 2001 and three overnights in April 2001 to attend his father's funeral; Michael O'Neill was granted three overnights in October 2000 to visit his sick mother; and Jeremiah Sheehy was granted three overnights in December 2000 to visit his sick mother.

I reject the notion that the area in which these prisoners are being detained could be described as some kind of holiday camp. The part of Castlerea Prison in which they are detained comprises five detached houses, three two-storeys and two bungalows. The accommodation is quite basic and the area is surrounded by perimeter walls, covered by CCTV and supervised at all times by prison staff. In view of developments in the peace process, it is not inappropriate that these prisoners should not be detained in a maximum security setting. The selection process for transfer of prisoners to the compound takes particular account of their security requirements. It is important to note that 19 non-subversive prisoners are also located in the area of the prison in question, all of whom have access to the same type of facilities available in some of the other low security prisons.

The regime in this part of Castlerea Prison is similar to that which operates in some of the other low security institutions. Some of the descriptions of the accommodation give a misleading impression of luxury and tend to ignore the reality that inmates in the prison, like those elsewhere in the prison system, are behind prison walls in secure custody. Contrary to reports, these prisoners are not in a position to take some of the liberties referred to. A high level of trust is placed in each prisoner to conform to the rules of the unit in the absence of close supervision. While the regime is not very strict, there are rules and regulations which must be adhered to. When a person is locked up without the liberty to move about, that person is imprisoned.

Do the less restrictive rules applicable under this regime deem it acceptable that prisoners are facilitated by prison authorities in sending out for Chinese take-aways?

The prisoners concerned are not allowed to send out for Chinese food or any other type of food.

Perhaps the Minister will indicate the number of times prisoners have been facilitated in this way.

I am not aware that any prisoner was allowed to send out for a take-away dinner.

Will the Minister address the issue of the provision of reasonable advance notice of such releases to the widow of the late Garda Jerry McCabe in order that she does not either learn of them at the last minute or through reports in the press?

Every effort is made to provide notice to the widow and her family. The Department notifies the Garda of these releases and they, in turn, notify Mrs. McCabe and her family. I take this opportunity to state how much I admire and respect the distinguished manner in which Mrs. McCabe and her family have endured these events.

The time for this question has expired.

What notice was provided to Mrs. McCabe prior to the most recent temporary release?

My understanding is that she and her family would have been informed the day prior to the release.

That is not adequate notice. A few days in advance would constitute reasonable notice.

We must move on to Question No. 83. The Deputy should not continue to defy standing orders.