Boris Johnson is facing mounting calls to sanction the early release of low-risk offenders in a bid to stop prisons becoming overwhelmed by the coronavirus crisis.
Unions representing prison staff and governors have said they would back a move by the prime minister to release some offenders to try and prevent jails being over-run amid staff shortages and the spread of the virus.
The Times reports that Johnson is set to allow pregnant inmates to leave jail, but is resisting pressure to extend the move to other low-risk offenders.
Ministers are instead said to be considering plans to convert disused military barracks and immigration detention centres into prisons to try to ease the strain on jails.
Northern Ireland has already announced that it will release some of its prison population early, with Scotland set to follow suit. Northern Ireland’s move excludes those convicted of serious crimes including murder, terrorism and sex offences.
Andrea Albutt, president of the Prison Governors Association, told the paper: “Prisons are now at the point where a decision must be made and implemented immediately on early release of prisoners.
“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.”
The latest Ministry of Justice figures, released on Monday, show that 55 prisoners have now tested positive for coronavirus in England and Wales across 21 prisons.
Meanwhile 18 prison staff and four prison escort staff have also tested positive for Covid-19.
That represents a doubling of the total number of cases on the prison estate since the previous update on Friday.
Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, said: “The crisis of Covid-19 in our communities is there for all to see and prisons are no different. The association will fully support [justice secretary] Robert Buckland if he decides on executive release of low-risk prisoners nearing the end of their sentence. This would free up spaces and resources to assist in an already stretched prison service and assist our hard-pressed members.”
He added: “We recognise that the general public would need to be reassured if the minister took this decision but the reality of the situation is that many serving prisoners in the open estate are released every day on licence to work in the community and many pose no risk.”
The MoJ has already moved to suspend prison visits during the Covid-19 outbreak, with some prisoners instead given secure phone handsets to allow those who have been risk assessed to get in touch with a “smal number of pre-authorised contacts”.
The department has also paused the usual regime prisons in a bid to observe government guidance on social distancing, which recommends that people stay two metres apart.
The MoJ said: “This means prisoners can no longer take part in usual recreational activities such as using the gym, going to worship or visiting the library.”