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Coronavirus: Thousands of prisoners to be released early in bid to ease pressure on jails

The move comes after pressure from prison staff unions.

3 min read

Low-risk prison inmates will be released early in a bid to ease the impact of the coronavirus outbreak in jails, the Justice Secretary has announced.

Robert Buckland said the “unprecedented” move to allow inmates two months away from release to leave ahead of time would come with a “tough risk assessment” - with those who break conditions recalled to prison.

It is estimated that around 4,000 prisoners will be affected by the decision.

The move marks a significant ramping up of Government efforts to slow the spread of the disease in jails, where some 88 prisoners and 15 staff have already tested positive for Covid-19.

More than a quarter (26%) of prison staff are currently absent or in self-isolation, putting further strain on a jail system that is already running at near-full capacity.

Earlier this week ministers confirmed that pregnant inmates who did not “pose a high risk of harm to the public” would be allowed home, while normal prison routines and visits have already  been suspended as part of efforts to contain the virus.

Announcing the latest step, Mr Buckland said: “This Government is committed to ensuring that justice is served to those who break the law.

“But this is an unprecedented situation because if Coronavirus takes hold in our prisons, the NHS could be overwhelmed and more lives put at risk.

“All prisoners will face a tough risk assessment and must comply with strict conditions, including an electronic tag, while they are closely monitored. Those that do not will be recalled to prison.”

The Ministry of Justice said only prisoners who pass “stringent criteria” for release would be allowed out, with electronic monitoring used to “enforce the requirement to stay at home”.

The Department added: “Public protection is paramount. No high-risk offenders, including those convicted of violent or sexual offences, anyone of national security concern or a danger to children, will be considered for release, nor any prisoners who have not served at least half their custodial term.”

The MoJ also said it would not consider early release for those who have been convicted of offences related to the coronavirus outbreak, such as “coughing at emergency workers or stealing personal protective equipment”.

The move to order early release of some prisoners comes after unions representing prison staff and governors urged ministers to do more to ease pressure on those working in the country’s jails.

Andrea Albutt, president of the Prison Governors Association, said: “The numbers infected and self- isolating are increasing and in the majority of prisons. If the government takes action now, we can help delay the spread of the virus in custody due to less crowding, which in turn will reduce the burden on the NHS.”

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