More than 900 criminals have absconded from prisons in the last 10 years — and almost 60 of them remain at large.
Among those are two who escaped in 2004 and are yet to be recaptured.
The figures were released by Justice Minister Alan Shatter in response to a parliamentary question.
Of the 902 prisoners who escaped between 2004 and 2013, more than 500 escaped in the years between 2007 and 2010.
In 2007 alone, 136 prisoners managed to abscond. Of the 133 who escaped in 2009, 16 have never been caught.
Mr Shatter said prisoners usually return voluntarily, are rearrested by gardaí or are recommitted by the courts.
“Gardaí are informed when prisoners abscond and have the power to detain, arrest, and return such persons to prison,” he said.
“Experience has shown that the vast majority of offenders who abscond return or are returned to custody to complete their sentences within a short time frame.”
He also pointed out that he is chairing a project team set up by the director general of the Irish Prison Service to examine ways of tackling “the issue of unlawfully at large prisoners”.
“The work undertaken by the project team, along with the close co-operation of gardaí and the Department of Social Protection has recently led to the recapture of four prisoners, one of whom had absconded in 2002.”
Mr Shatter’s colleague Bernard Durkan said the system appeared to have “tightened” in recent years — to date in 2013, there have been only 15 escapes and all but three are back behind bars.
However, he added: “The figures do show there was a huge exodus in 2007-2010. It certainly should not have been possible for that number to have escaped.”
In relation to that spike, a Prison Service spokesman pointed out that there had been a significant increase in prison intake in those years, leading to overcrowding and a resultant increase in the number of prisoners being sent to open centres — from where the majority of prisoners abscond.
He said there had since been a change in sentence management policy, with a screening of prisoners to ensure the most appropriate prisoners were sent to those centres.
The spokesman said those prisoners are given greater responsibility to ensure they obey the rules — in return they are given a greater degree of freedom, for example longer visiting times with their families.
That culture, he said, had contributed to the decrease in the level of absconding in recent years.
Details were not given of the offences which each of the at-large people had been imprisoned for prior to their escape, though it is understood they included drugs offences.
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