A disproportionately large number of prisoners in Northern Irish jails are from overseas, the News Letter can reveal.
According to a detailed analysis of prisoner numbers over the last eight years undertaken by the paper, the annual proportion of the jail population who are from outside the UK or Ireland varies from just under 7% to just under 9% each year.
This is higher than the overall proportion of people in Northern Ireland who hail from overseas.
According to the 2011 Census – the last comprehensive, nationwide attempt to measure the population – roughly 4.5% of Northern Ireland residents had been born outside the UK or Ireland (up from about 1.6% a decade earlier).
Whilst eastern European groups made up the biggest blocs of overseas inmates (see below), the figures for this year show a gamut of people of all backgrounds behind bars, including from Portugal, Algeria, Nigeria, Brazil, and Vietnam.
The proportion of overseas inmates has remained relatively steady from 2009 until 2016 – the period for which data is available.
The annual average cost of looking after a prisoner for a year currently stands at £57,643.
The News Letter began asking for details of the numbers of foreign national prisoners following the jailing of Ioan Lacatus, a Romanian repeat offender who is currently serving a sentence for exploiting a group of his own countrymen in a labour scam.
A snapshot of the jail population from April 1 this year shows that 8.8% of all inmates in Maghaberry, Magilligan and Hydebank – including both male and female – were from outside the UK or Ireland.
However, deeper examination of the data reveals that the bulk of these inmates are not serving sentences for committing crimes; rather, they are being held on remand whilst awaiting court proceedings.
These prisoners are known as “unsentenced” inmates.
Out of the 411 unsentenced imates in jail at the start of April, 84 of them (20.4%) were from overseas.
But of the 1,034 prisoners who were serving sentences, 43 of them (4.2%) were from overseas.
When taken together, this makes the overall figure 8.8%.
Asked what kind of problems this presents, Finlay Spratt, the head of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), said: “Language is the main problem that our staff encounter, and they have to try and work with that. That’s the main barrier...
“Quite a lot of those that are in jail would speak sort of broken English.”
Maghaberry, the largest jail, holds both sentenced and unsentenced prisoners.
Magilligan holds only sentenced prisoners.
Hydebank holds both – but its population is comprised of women prisoners and young offenders.
While some overseas prisoners may be kept in jail while awaiting deportation, it would be rare, and they are generally not kept there for long; therefore, the use of jails as a “holding” point for soon-to-be deported people is not understood to account for the high number of foreign prisoners.
IRISH ‘NOT COUNTED AS FORIEGN’:
The biggest overseas group in Northern Irish jails as of the start of April were Lithuanians.
Of the 127-strong contingent of overseas nationals behind bars, 36 were Lithuanian (of whom 12 were serving sentences).
The next largest group was Romanians, 19 of whom were in jail (three of whom were serving sentences), whilst there were also 17 Chinese (of whom three were serving sentences) and 16 Poles in jail (nine of whom were serving sentences).
However, there is a quirk within the figures presented to the News Letter – the Prison Service said that its system “does not count Irish as a foreign national”.
The Prison Service asks inmates to complete a form “in which they can specify the nationality that they identify with”, but does not ask them for proof of nationality (in fact, all prisoners are asked to ‘self-declare’ their nationality when they enter, although obviously overseas inmates’ backgrounds are more readily identifiable due to their native langauges, contact with family overseas, or because it has been declared in court).
Out of the 1,445 prisoners in jail, there are currently 155 who identify as “Irish” – a figure that is fairly typical year-to-year.
This equates to about 10.7% of the whole population.
PRISONER NUMBERS AT SIX-YEAR LOW:
In addition, a general breakdown of the figures reveals that the prisoner population is the lowest point since 2010, with 1,445 inmates in the system – compared with 1,889 in April 2014 (the highest figure seen by the News Letter).
In 2015, Maghaberry (the biggest jail) was branded “Dickensian, unsafe and unstable” in an inspection report.
An inspection this year found a “significant amount of work was still required to make Maghaberry safer”.
Asked about why trouble persists in spite of relatively low current prisoner numbers, Mr Spratt said: “But then don’t forget, they’ve reduced the staffing levels of the prison service.”
He said prison officer numbers had been cut from about 1,600 in 2012 to 1,300 now.