The Ministry of Justice today announced detailed plans for reducing the spread of coronavirus in prisons. The measures are aimed at safeguarding prisoners and prison staff, as well as protecting the NHS from further pressure.

Risk-assessed prisoners who are within two months of their release date will be temporarily released from jail as part of the national plan to shield the NHS and save lives.

Early release will apply to selected low-risk offenders who are within weeks of their release dates. Those eligible will be electronically tagged and temporarily released on licence in stages.

Violent and sexual offenders and those considered a risk to security will not be considered.

Offenders released early can be recalled at the first sign of concern.

“Logical and humane”

Police and Crime Commissioner Martin Surl, who is chairman of the Gloucestershire Criminal Justice Board, said: “The ministry’s move is both logical and humane as it moves to avoid the possibility of thousands of prisoners who live in close proximity to one another, often in the same cell, becoming infected.

“As well as the risk to prisoners and prison staff, infection on such a scale could have a catastrophic effect on NHS staff who are working round the clock to beat the virus.

“Whilst some people may be concerned, only prisoners who pass the very strict conditions will be considered for release as public protection is paramount.

“Covid-19 offenders not considered for early release”

“No high-risk offenders, including those convicted of violent or sexual offences, anyone of national security concern or a danger to children, will be eligible.

“Additionally, no-one convicted of COVID-19 related offences, including coughing at emergency workers or stealing personal protective equipment, will be considered”.

Early release will be phased over time but can start from next week. Prisoners who breach conditions or commit further offences can be recalled immediately.

The legislation covers prisons in England and Wales only. Northern Ireland is to release 200 of its 1,500 prisoners. Scotland has also stated an intention to release prisoners early.

The Ministry of Justice is also working to identify publicly owned sites that could be used to house temporary prison accommodation to ease pressure on the permanent estate, further separate prisoners and reduce the spread of the virus.