Justice Secretary Robert Buckland is considering plans to convert immigration detention centres and other buildings into jails to ensure inmates can follow social distancing guidelines. It comes as there have been 27 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in 14 prisons, with two deaths.
Campaigners wrote an open letter calling for the Government to take ”urgent life-saving steps to immediately reduce” the number of people in prison.
But ministers have ruled out releasing inmates on short sentences early over fears it will damage public confidence in the justice system.
Instead, the Government is thought to be looking at turning immigration detention centres and other buildings into prisons.
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It comes after jails in England and Wales were put on lockdown on Tuesday as it emerged that thousands of staff were self-isolating.
Jo Farrar, chief executive of the Prison and Probation Service, told the Commons Justice Committee that around 4,300 prison and probation staff overall were self-isolating.
Some 3,500 were prison staff – representing about 10 percent of the workforce.
Five prison staff in different jails have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the latest figures.
Four prisoner escort and custody services staff have also been infected with the virus, as well as around eight probation staff.
In a letter sent to the Prime Minister, Justice Secretary, Home Secretary and other ministers on Friday – signed by more than 100 campaigners – Deborah Coles, the director of the charity Inquest, and Kate Paradine, chief executive of Women In Prison, urged for the prison population to be “drastically” reduced to stop the spread of the virus.
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The letter said: “People in prison are already dying.
“Many detention settings already have the virus within their walls, with thousands of frontline staff self-isolating.
“Astonishingly, people continue to be processed through a justice system despite the known dangers.
“A failure to act, and release people now, will result in an increased risk to us all.”
It added that the Government has a “legal and moral obligation” to protect the lives of people who have been detained “from a foreseeable danger to their health”.
It highlighted moves in Iran, Ireland and the US to release prisoners – insisted there was a “blueprint” for the UK to follow suit.
The letter added: “It is clear that keeping people in prison and detention during this pandemic threatens the lives of prisoners, staff, healthcare workers – and the public health at large.”
It comes as Britain has been put on a police-enforced lockdown to combat coronavirus.
There have been 17,089 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK, with the death toll at 1,019.
Boris Johnson, who is self-isolating after testing positive for the virus, is writing to every household warning he could order stricter measures to tackle the outbreak as it worsens and telling people the closer they follow the rules “the sooner life can return to normal”.
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