IT COSTS three times more to keep someone in an Ulster jail than to send a child to Eton - yet most inmates get little or no education.
As the historic power-sharing deal was completed to restore rule at Stormont, MPs in Westminster said the failings of the prison system was a key challenge for the new executive.
Stephen Pound, chairing the Northern Ireland affairs select committee session, said: "The Northern Ireland prison service has existed through a trying and testing time. We are, however, moving into a different era."
He said the system will have to cope with a population expected to increase from 1,500 to 1,850 in the next three years while improving education and training opportunities as well as health care and general prison conditions.
A typical prisoner in Ulster costs the taxpayer about pound;86,000, double the cost in Britain and far more than Eton's boarding fees of just under Pounds 25,000.
A combination of good pay and conditions for prison officers and a decision to allow paramilitaries segregated accommodation were to blame for the high costs.
Despite this, inspectors at Maghaberry prison found there are only 80 vocational training places for 800 prisoners, although most have access to other forms of education. At Magilligan prison, there were just 35 education places for 400 inmates.
Ann Owers, chief inspector of prisons, told the committee: "A lot of prisoners are supposedly cleaning, but that can often mean just being issued with a broom."
She said that, in 2001, Northern Ireland prisons were an example to the rest of the UK in terms of resettling prisoners in the community. "I hope there is an opportunity for this to be recovered," she said.