U.K. Coronavirus Prisoner Release Plan Stalls Amid Red Tape, Blunders

(Bloomberg) --

Less than 50 of the thousands of low-risk prisoners that U.K. authorities pledged to release to fight the spread of coronavirus have actually been set free in a program that has been beset by blunders and red tape.

The accidental release of six prisoners coupled with bureaucratic restrictions have brought the program to a standstill, Andrea Albutt, president of the Prison Governors’ Association, told the BBC’s Today radio program Thursday. She said that only 17 women and no more than 30 eligible male inmates have been let out.

“It’s just not good enough,” Albutt said. “Now we’re spending millions of pounds putting temporary accommodation into our prisons to reduce double-cell occupancy when in actual fact we have quite a few thousand people who are lower risk and could easily be released.”

Governments around the world have been trying to reduce overcrowding in prisons by releasing the least dangerous offenders to slow the spread of the virus. U.K. authorities, however, are acting cautiously in the wake of two disastrous episodes in the past nine months when prisoners on early release went on deadly killing sprees.

The program was restarted Thursday after delays because of the inadvertent release if prisoners last week.

The Ministry of Justice said earlier this month that as many as 4,000 low-risk prisoners woud be freed under certain conditions. Justice Minister Robert Buckland underscored the urgency of the program, saying that “if coronavirus takes hold in our prisons,” the National Health Service “could be overwhelmed and more lives put at risk.”

A spokesman for the ministry on Thursday said the measures to control the outbreak go beyond the early release of prisoners and include the expansion of jails, “reducing the number of offenders held on remand and stopping all non-essential movement.”

A total of 294 prisoners in the U.K. and 231 staff have tested positive for the virus, the ministry said. The U.K. has had 18,151 deaths according to Bloomberg-compiled data, fifth most in the world.

Albutt blamed the government for the delay. “They have to be brave and they have to make this decision,” she said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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