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Campaigners have threatened to take legal action against the government over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak in prisons.
Two charities, the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust, argue justice secretary Robert Buckland has been “too slow and too limited” in his efforts to reduce the prison population and mitigate the risk of the virus to prisoners and staff.
The government says as many as 4,000 prisoners could be let out up to two months early to create more space – but as of Tuesday, only 18 had been released.
Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in almost half the prisons in England and Wales, and at least 13 people are thought to have died after contracting the illness.
A total of 255 prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus in 62 prisons as of 5pm on Thursday, the Ministry of Justice said.
Some 138 prison staff have also contracted the virus in 49 prisons as well as seven prisoner escort and custody services staff.
There was also an “outbreak” of the disease at HMP Wymott in Lancashire over the weekend and inmates are being moved into single cells.
As of April 3, there were 82,589 inmates behind bars.
The two charities have sent the justice secretary a letter from their lawyers warning of a possible application for judicial review.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, said: “The secretary of state has accepted publicly that the number of people in prison must be reduced significantly in order to save lives. However, this has not – and cannot – be achieved by the measures that the government currently has in place.
“The rate of infection is accelerating, and the window of opportunity to protect people is vanishing. Ministers must rise to this challenge and act immediately to avert a public health catastrophe.”
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Everything good about government action in tackling this emergency has been characterised by being early and decisive.
“On prisons, by contrast, it is a story of too little, too late. The scientific and operational advice couldn’t be clearer – if ministers are serious about following it, they must go much further, and do it now.”
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has announced single-occupancy temporary prison cells will be built in the grounds of seven jails in a bid to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
So far, there are plans for up to 2,000 temporary cells which will be used by low-risk category C and D offenders.
Self-isolating or symptomatic prisoners and those who have tested positive are put in a cell on their own, but those who have not displayed symptoms may still be sharing cells with other inmates.
The MoJ has also pledged to release up to 4,000 low-risk prisoners on temporary licence in a bid to ease overcrowding, as well as pregnant inmates and mothers behind bars with babies.
All offenders must pass a risk assessment before their release is approved.
So far, four out of 4,000 have been temporarily freed, but prisons minister Lucy Frazer said there were plans to release a significant number this week.
In addition, some 14 pregnant inmates and mothers with babies out of around 70 have been temporarily freed, she added.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We have robust and flexible plans in place keep prisoners, staff and the wider public safe based on the latest advice from Public Health England.
“As part of the national plan to protect the NHS and save lives, we have already announced up to 4,000 risk-assessed prisoners who are within two months of their release date will be temporarily released from jail, along with pregnant women.”