MoJ hits ‘pause’ on coronavirus early-release scheme for prisoners

Data shows at least 275 inmates have been freed from jail ahead of time under pandemic programme
Photo: PA images

By Jim Dunton

20 Aug 2020

The Ministry of Justice has announced that the early-release programme for prisoners introduced as part of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic will stop next week.

Justice secretary Robert Buckland said the measures, designed to reduce the virus’s impact on the prison estate and the NHS, had served their purpose and would be paused from 27 August. However, he noted that the situation would be kept under review.

According to the latest statistics from the MoJ and its HM Prison and Probation Service agency, 275 prisoners had been freed early under Covid-19 temporary schemes as of 7 August. The peak for early releases was the week ending 8 May.

A commentary accompanying the figures said that of the inmates released early under the measures,  52 had been vulnerable – a category that includes pregnant women or new mothers released on compassionate grounds. 

Buckland said public protection had remained the number one priority throughout the pandemic and only those prisoners who were low-risk and passed stringent criteria had been granted temporary release.

“This has been an unprecedented situation but thanks to the hard work and dedication of our staff we have stopped coronavirus taking hold in prisons, which means we can now pause the early release scheme,” he said.

“We continue to keep this decision under review, but independent public health experts have judged our approach effective and we continue to do all we can to help the NHS and prevent our staff and prisoners from being at risk.”

The MoJ said the early-release programme had covered inmates who, in addition to being low-risk, were within two months of their release date.

It said current cases that were part of the Covid-19 measures would continue to be worked through, with releases being made until Thursday next week.

The MoJ’s most recent dataset said 44 HMPPS “service users” had died in circumstances where Covid-19 was suspected. Of that number, 23 were prisoners and 21 were under the supervision of the National Probation Service or Community Rehabilitation Companies.

Separate data published by the MoJ and HMPPS today said that as of 31 July, there had been 16 deaths of HMPPS staff where Covid-19 was the suspected cause since the start of the pandemic. The data, described as “experimental”, said seven staff had been directly employed by the prison service and nine were “non-directly employed”.

According to the ministry, the prison population was 4,400 lower at the beginning of this month than it was in mid-March – at 79,600. It said the primary driver was a reduction in the intake of prisoners because of disruption to courts caused by Covid-19.

It noted that despite the reduction in prisoner numbers,  a compartmentalisation strategy introduced to isolate inmates with coronavirus symptoms and quarantine new admissions for 14 days meant the operational capacity of prisons had decreased by 3,800.

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