The two leading prison reform groups in the country have called on the government to take further action to reduce the prison population in order to protect prisoners, staff and the wider public from coronavirus.

In an open letter, the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust have warned the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, that failure to act immediately could lead to loss of life on an unprecedented scale.

The charities have welcomed the decision to release certain pregnant women and mothers in Mother and Baby Units, but urged the Secretary of State to extend early release to prisoners who are either medically vulnerable or present a low risk of harm.

The letter has been published alongside a report by Professor Richard Coker, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which sets out the most up-to-date evidence concerning the nature, spread and transmission of coronavirus as it applies to prisons.

Professor Coker’s report states that the risk of exposure to the virus to prisoners and staff is “far, far greater” than the risks to individuals in the wider community, adding that social distancing and personal infection control measures are “almost impossible” in prisons. It recommends that authorities “should consider alternative options to incarceration where feasible”.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

“The government is in a race against time to curb the spread of coronavirus in prisons and protect the wider public.

“Many more lives will be lost unless urgent action is taken to reduce the number of people behind bars.

“We understand that advice on the impact of this disease within the prison system has been presented to the Prime Minister, and we ask that this is published.”

Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“All we are asking is that the government follow the science. That makes it very clear that reducing the number of people in prison is crucial to controlling the spread of infection, not just in prisons but in the communities to which prisoners return on release and staff return every day.

“Virtually every area of government is taking decisive, bold action to protect the public by following the science – there can be no excuse not to do the same in prisons.

“Time is short, and ministers are already behind the curve. Further delay will cause avoidable deaths amongst prisoners, prison staff and those closest to them.”

Over the course of the last week, the two charities have been in urgent private correspondence with the Secretary of State, setting out their concern about the developing situation behind bars.

As the virus takes hold in prisons, prisoners, who would otherwise have been safe to release to homes where they and those around them could avoid infection, risk becoming critically ill in an environment not equipped to treat them. This will put not only their lives at risk, but also those of the prison staff trying to look after them.

The window of opportunity to save lives is closing, and the consequences of further delay will be felt far beyond prison walls. As large shared spaces, prisons act as “epidemiological pumps”, which can drive the spread of disease among the wider community.

Explosive coronavirus outbreaks within large shared spaces have acted as preludes to wider transmission among the general population, as has been seen in a cluster of cases associated with a ski-chalet in France and in church and hospital clusters in South Korea.

According to Ministry of Justice figures, as of 5pm on Tuesday 31 March, 69 prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus across 25 prisons. Fourteen prison staff, working in eight different prisons, and four Prisoner Escort and Custody Services (PECS) staff have also tested positive. Three people in prison have died.

On the ground, there have been reports of dangerous practices. For example, in Wandsworth prison, where men with milder cold and flu-like symptoms have been forced to share cells with confirmed coronavirus patients in an ‘isolation wing’. Professor Coker’s report expresses concern about this practice.

Staff shortages due to self-isolation and changes to the regime have had a severe impact, with reports that most prisoners are effectively in solitary confinement. Some are reporting reductions in food; it is understood that Ford and Spring Hill prisons are now providing only one pre-packed meal a day to the men in their care.

There is unanimous support from prison officers, prison governors and the government’s own expert advisory panel for immediate action to release prisoners and save lives.

The Prison Governors’ Association has called for a decision to be “made and implemented immediately”, adding that it would “help delay the spread of the virus in custody due to less crowding, which in turn will reduce the burden on the NHS”.

The Prison Officers’ Association has indicated that it would support the decision to release prisoners nearing the end of their sentences as it “would free up spaces and resources to assist in an already stretched prison service”.

The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody has stated that the government “should embark without further delay” on a programme of planned releases in order to “meet its obligation to take active steps to protect lives”.

England and Wales are out of step with many other countries that have taken decisive action to protect health and life.

Northern Ireland is to release 200 of its 1,500 prisoners. Scotland has also said that it will release prisoners early.

Ireland has released prisoners who had already been determined suitable for early release.

France has announced the release of some 5,000 prisoners, as well as reducing short-term prison sentences and bringing down the number of entrants into the system from 200 per day to about 30.

Netherlands has stopped those who were due to be detained on short sentences from doing so for the time being.

In the US, various states have released hundreds of prisoners. In California alone, 3,500 people are to be granted early release in an effort to reduce crowding.