ALMOST 300 criminals - many of them violent - are at large after escaping from Irish jails.
Gardai were last night accused of not having the will to pursue escaped convicts as figures obtained by the Irish Independent reveal a total of 272 prisoners are on the run.
The revelation also raises questions over the level of security in operation at prisons.
A total of 75 prisoners absconded after escaping from low security prisons; 38 went on the run while on temporary release.
Nineteen escaped after being let out for medical/drug treatments. Two prisoners escaped from custody as they were being escorted to court.
Two more prisoners are at large after fleeing a secure jail while being brought to hospital.
The majority of fugitive prisoners (136) failed to return to custody after they were allowed out on temporary release towards the end of their sentences.
Opposition justice spokespersons last night branded the figures -- the first official confirmation of criminals at large by the Prison Service -- as "startling" and "disturbing".
Fine Gael's Charlie Flanagan said criminals were giving "two fingers" to the justice system.
And Labour's justice spokesman Pat Rabbitte said there was a lack of "will" on the part of the authorities. "It is difficult to understand why these people have not been picked up, especially in light of the fact that some of the prisoners have a violent record," he told the Irish Independent.
"I think that the will needs to be there to pick these people up. There ought to be an absolute commitment to retrieving a prisoner who escapes or absconds."
A Garda spokeswoman last night insisted "all necessary inquiries" are made in an effort to locate individuals who escape from custody.
One offender has been at large since May 1992 after he escaped while on temporary release.
The man, originally from Cork, had been serving a four-year sentence for forgery in Wheatfield Prison.
One of the four prisoners who fled a secure jail is Martin Casey, who escaped while being escorted to court by prison officers in November 1996.
Casey had been serving a 10-year sentence for attempted robbery in Limerick Prison when he managed to flee.
Another inmate from Limerick Prison, Anthony Terry, escaped when he was escorted to hospital by prison officers in September 2006.
He had been serving a four year sentence for possession of drugs with intent to supply.
Philip Green, who is originally from Athlone, also fled from prison officers while being escorted to court.
He had been serving four years for aggravated burglary in Portlaoise prison when he fled in December 2001.
Pakistani national Sajid Munir, of no fixed abode, fled while being escorted to hospital in March the same year.
This is despite the fact he was only serving a sentence of a couple of weeks for immigration-related charges.
The Prison Service last night attempted to play down the significance of the figures.
A spokesman said the "vast majority" of prisoners at large are from low-security centres or were out on temporary release when they fled.
He said they had already been judged suitable for release and that it would have been only a matter of weeks before the end of their sentences.
The spokesman added that none of the prisoners was serving a sentence for murder or manslaughter when they fled custody.
However, many have a record of criminal violence and hold convictions for serious offences such as assault and robbery.
"I am a supporter of temporary and compassionate release but if it is going to be abused it calls into question the whole system," Mr Flanagan added.
"The Criminal Justice Bill does include provisions for electronically tagging serious criminals who are on bail. There is an argument to be made that something similar could be used to monitor those on temporary release," he added.