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Coronavirus Kent: Prisoners' early release amid Covid-19 outbreak

Inmates locked up in the county's prisons could be handed an early release as efforts step up to halt the spread of coronavirus.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland’s announcement followed lockdown of Kent's jails, in a nationwide sweep to bring prisons in line with social distancing rules.

Cookham Wood Young Offenders Institute. Picture: Peter Still
Cookham Wood Young Offenders Institute. Picture: Peter Still

Prisoners will be kept in their cells for 23 hours as group activities, gymnasiums, and education classes have all been axed under the new measures.

Meanwhile, behind closed doors, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is hammering out proposals to help combat the spread of Covid-19 inside prisons.

The department revealed nine prisons were infected with 13 prisoners and 12 staff testing positive - the number is expected to be greater.

But the MoJ refuses to specify which jails are infected or what category of inmate could be considered for release.

Mr Buckland said the virus poses an "acute" risk in many overcrowded prisons.

More than 3,500 prison staff - one in 10 of the workforce- didn't work yesterday because they were ill or self-isolating.

HMP Elmley
HMP Elmley

Now the Government is planning to to "alleviate" pressures.

The justice secretary revealed he is "keen" to make use of release on temporary licence - where prisoners are let out for short periods after a risk assessment.

Mr Buckland said he was looking "very carefully" at whether or not 50 pregnant prisoners could be released.

He also indicated some of the 9,000 inmates who are on remand, awaiting trial, could be transferred to bail hostels, if it was safe to do so.

But the MoJ is unable to specify which category of prisoner would be fit for release because “no decision has yet been made,” according to press officer Huw Wales.

Inmates in the county's prisons are set to be released early to help stop the spread of coronavirus
Inmates in the county's prisons are set to be released early to help stop the spread of coronavirus

It comes as the department announced 55 prisons across England and Wales would be given 900 phones to allow prisoners to stay in touch with family members during the visitor ban.

But the devices will have the internet disabled and access would only be handed to risk-assessed prisoners temporarily, the MoJ said.

Ashford’s Womens’ prison and Young Offenders’ Institute HMP Bronzefield has today released guidance to friends and family to take pressure off staff manning the phones.

A spokesman said: “We have taken the difficult decision to cancel all social visits with immediate effect.

“This is to protect the safety and wellbeing of our staff and residents, helping to minimise the spread of Covid-19.

HMP Swaleside. Picture: Chris Davey
HMP Swaleside. Picture: Chris Davey

“The actions we are taking replicate those being implemented within the community - controlling the movement of people, providing access to exercise once per day, limiting the number of people moving around at any one time and only allowing essential workers to continue with their employment duties.

“This includes peer support workers who will be helping to support residents who may require additional support during this extended period of social distancing.

“Residents will still be able to attend essential medical appointments and transfers/court appearances will still be facilitated at this time.

The continued: “We can reduce the number of people needing hospital treatment, so we can help to protect the ability of the NHS to cope with this unprecedented situation and save more lives.”

An MoJ spokesman said: “The Government’s absolute priority is to protect life and 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.”

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