As many as 4,000 prisoners in England and Wales are to be temporarily released from jail in an effort to try and control the spread of coronavirus, the government has announced.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said the low-risk offenders would be electronically tagged and temporarily released on licence in stages, but could be recalled at the first sign of concern. It is seen as a way to avoid thousands of prisoners, many of whom share cells, from becoming infected.
Eighty-eight prisoners and 15 staff have already tested positive for Covid-19. Three prisoners have died.
No high-risk criminals — such as those who have been convicted of violent or sexual offences, anyone who is a national security concern or a danger to children — will be considered for release. Nor will prisoners who have not served at least half their custodial term be among those released.
The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, said the move to temporarily release the prisoners is part of the national plan to protect the NHS and save lives.
The total number to be released makes up roughly 5% of the prison estate in England and Wales, which holds 83,000 prisoners across 117 institutions.
The MoJ said no offender convicted of coronavirus-related offences, including coughing at emergency workers or stealing personal protective equipment, would be eligible.
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 announcement follows a call from the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for the early release of prisoners to protect them, staff and the wider public.
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “This is a welcome and substantial step in the right direction. Exceptional times require exceptional measures, and the public should be reassured that in this instance, their protection is better served by carefully releasing some prisoners a few weeks early than by keeping them in.
“Prisons have never faced an emergency of this complexity or duration, and further measures will be needed in the weeks ahead. But this is a start, and the lord chancellor deserves credit for it.”
Juliet Lyon, the chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody, said: “At a time of grave threat to life, we welcome the lord chancellor’s considered decision to start a planned programme of prison releases without further delay. This is based on the clear, consistent advice of scrutiny bodies, public health experts, human rights organisations, charities, prison governors and staff unions.”
The announcement follows the news last week that pregnant women in custody who do not pose a high risk of harm to the public will be temporarily released from prison to protect them and their unborn children from coronavirus. Prisoners in mother and baby units meeting the same risk assessment will also be released with their children.
Governors will be able to grant their release on temporary licence once they pass a risk assessment and suitable accommodation for the women has been identified. Dr Kate Paradine, the chief executive of charity Women in Prison, called for more prisoners to be released.
“The release of pregnant women and mother and babies on prison mother and baby units (MBUs) is the first step to keeping all our communities safe and healthy. As a matter of urgency, the government must now plan to release many more people to drastically reduce the number of people in prison. Failure to act may have catastrophic consequences, causing many more avoidable deaths in our communities both in and outside of prison.”
The Home Office has also released more people from immigration detention centres following individual assessments. After releasing 350 detainees over a week ago, more of 736 people detained have been released.
Northern Ireland will also release 200 of its 1,500 prisoners early, while the authorities in Scotland are considering taking similar action.