PRISONERS serving sentences for crimes ranging from possession of drugs to robbery are currently working out their time in the community rather than being locked up in jail.
The early releases are part of a radical move by the prison authorities to reduce the worrying level of repeat offending, and prepare the criminals for their return to society.
Initial responses from the prisoners' supervisors and from the offenders have been described as positive.
Almost half of the prisoners taking part have been jailed for drug offences while the bulk of the others have been convicted for either assault, theft or burglary.
The aim is to let a total of 1,200 prisoners out of jail to work in the community over three years.
So far, 250 offenders have taken part, with 92 prisoners currently engaged in community service work.
The scheme is open to prisoners serving terms of between one and eight years behind bars after they have completed at least half of their sentence.
The prisoners in the scheme are assessed on the same basis as those inmates allowed out from prison on normal temporary release and must be determined as posing no threat to the community.
They are employed in unpaid, supervised community service work, involving practical tasks such as painting, gardening or graffiti removal.
A senior prison official said the prisoners "are allowed out on a structured release programme, work at their jobs under supervision from 9am to 4.30pm and then return home. At the same time, they are entitled to apply for unemployment and any social welfare benefits they would normally claim.
"But if they breach the terms of their release, they are immediately returned to jail. We work on the basis of one strike and you're back in."
Although there is overcrowding in some jails, officials said the scheme was targeted more at improving the prospects of resettlement and reintegration for criminals and reducing the number of repeat offenders.
A study of 2,632 offenders released from custody in 2007 after serving a sentence of 12 months or less showed that 49pc of them re-offended within a year of the end of their sentence.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter has hinted at a new incentive scheme to encourage prison inmates to behave and co-operate with rehabilitation schemes behind bars.