Electronic tagging of prisoners will begin in the new year following the selection of a private security firm to run the programme.
The Irish Prison Service is due to sign a contract with Chubb Ireland that will see the company provide satellite tracking technology to keep tabs on prisoners away from jail.
Tagging will only be used in limited circumstances, primarily to monitor prisoners in hospital or convalescent homes and probably on just 10 to 15 at any one time, though the system is set up to handle 50. No decision has been made on the wider use of tagging.
Drafting of legislation to facilitate tagging in situations such as temporary release began seven years ago.
Supporters argue tagging would save money and improve public safety as it would enable tighter monitoring of sex offenders and other dangerous convicts, prevent absconding by prisoners granted leave on compassionate grounds, and ease overcrowding by allowing more of those close to the end of their sentence to complete it outside jail.
A pilot project involving 20 prisoners was carried out in 2010. Alan Shatter, the justice minister, has since referred the matter to a working group reviewing all aspects of penal policy. That group is due to report back in the middle of 2013.
An Irish Prison Service spokesman said the tagging programme about to begin was devised separately from the earlier proposal and should not be seen as excluding possible wider uses of the technology.
“This is not the roll-out of the electronic monitoring project that would have been referred to in the past. It is an operational requirement of the Irish Prison Service at the moment and it will make a significant financial saving as you will not have to have round the clock escorts on prisoners outside of prison.”
However, he said: “The future expansion of the proposal will be informed by what we do because it will test the technology.”
The Irish Penal Reform Trust said it kept an open mind on tagging but had some concerns based on the experiences of other countries where courts used it as an additional penalty rather than an alternative.
Director Liam Herrick said: “It can not be a substitute for probation and supervision so if there is a determination that somebody needs supervision in the community, tagging should not be used to replace that personal interaction.”
He said tagging could create a false sense of security. “Tagging only tells you the location of the prisoner — not what they’re doing.”
About 800-900 prisoners — between one fifth and one sixth of the prison population — are on temporary release on an average day for a variety of reasons.
Previous proposals for the introduction of tagging envisaged 200-300 being electronically monitored at any one time.
The Irish Prison Service spokesman while a much lower number and much less mobile category of prisoner would be tagged under the coming scheme, the same criteria for assessment of suitability for release would apply. “Public safety would be paramount,” he said.
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