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Only 33 prisoners released early under coronavirus scheme as minster admits progress ‘careful and slow’

The scheme was meant to see 4,000 prisoners released early (PA)

3 min read

Just 33 prisoners have been released early from prison under a plan to safeguard jails from coronavirus, the Government has confirmed.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland admitted progress has been “careful and slow” on the scheme, which is meant to see 4,000 leave before the end of their sentence.

He also announced that so far five members of staff have died from Covid-19 while there have been 15 prisoner deaths.

Mr Buckland made the comments in the House of Commons in response to a question from Labour’s new shadow justice secretary David Lammy.

The minister said: "Progress has, I admit, been careful and slow but we have reached a position now where, also taking into account the release of pregnant women, a total of 33 prisoners have been released.

"It's a scheme that I did not embark upon lightly, it is the result of very careful risk assessment, so that we want to minimise any risk to the public, and of course it's coupled with the reduction that we've seen in prison places and prison capacity of about 3,000.

“Which to my judgement and the judgement of those who advise me, is already making a big difference in creating the space that we need in order to increase compartmentalisation and to reduce the spread of the virus.”

The early release scheme for low-risk offenders was announced at the start of April to help try and prevent the spread of coronavirus behind bars.

But it was quickly suspended after six inmates were freed by mistake, though officials said the men "returned compliantly to prison when asked to do so”.

So far 321 prisoners have a confirmed case of Covid-19, and 293 prison staff, according to Mr Buckland.

The Tory chair of the justice committee, Sir Bob Neill, said "very great strains" were placed particularly on overcrowded older Victorian prisons, and called for more targeted early release.

Mr Buckland replied: "He's right to point out the early release scheme, it is but a part of a co-ordinated strategy which has included the compartmentalisation of prisoners in order to prevent the seeding and feeding of the infection, and that together with increased capacity that we are developing at pace, plus a reduction in the overall number of prisoners in the estate has helped us reach a position where, whilst we are not out of the woods, we are coping and dealing well with the threat of Covid-19."

But the Justice Secretary also acknowledged prison staff are facing a shortage of protective coveralls.

"We have a large delivery on order and it is expected this week or next,” he added.

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