Pregnant inmates could be granted temporary release from prison “within days” to protect them and their unborn children from coronavirus.
Prison governors will be able to grant release on temporary licence to women who are expecting behind bars as long as they do not pose a high risk of harm to the public.
Decisions will be made subject to them passing risk assessments and once suitable accommodation is found.
Mothers who are behind bars with their children who pass the same checks can also be released.
The announcement follows mounting pressure from the campaigners, including the Catholic Church, urging Justice Secretary Robert Buckland to release prisoners in England and Wales during the pandemic.
Pregnant women are considered by the Government as being in the “at risk” category of those who could be in most danger if they contract the virus, alongside people with underlying health conditions or those aged 70 and over.
There are currently 35 pregnant prisoners and 34 inmates in mother and baby units across 12 women prisons in England.
The inmates in question are considered “low risk” to the public but will be subject to licence conditions like a requirement to stay at home and wear an electronic tag where appropriate.
“They can be immediately recalled to prison for breaching these conditions or committing further offences”, the MoJ added.
The news comes as Northern Ireland signalled it would let out more than 10 per cent of those behind bars and emergency powers allowing ministers to release prisoners from jail early were being considered in Scotland.
Jails in England and Wales were put on immediate lockdown last week with all visits cancelled.
And transfers for inmates between prisons are now only being allowed in “exceptional cases”.
Staff numbers in prisons are already stretched, with some 3,500 employees – representing about a tenth of the workforce – currently in self-isolation due to Covid-19.
Mr Buckland said: “We have already taken extraordinary measures to protect prisoners and the public over the last few weeks, but it’s clear now that we must temporarily release pregnant women and those with small babies with them inside prison.
“Governors can now temporarily release pregnant prisoners so that they can stay at home and reduce social contact like all other expectant mothers have been advised to do.”
Earlier this week, the Bishop of Arundel & Brighton, Richard Moth, who serves as lead bishop for prisons in England and Wales, warned that prisoners are at “particular risk” from the pandemic as he called for the government to “safely” release some prisoners, particularly those who are in vulnerable groups, including older, unwell and pregnant inmates.
“The tens of thousands of women and men in our overcrowded prisons are at particular risk from this pandemic. They are no less deserving of safety and healthcare than anyone else in our society,” he said.
“It is very encouraging that ministers are considering releasing some people, to relieve pressure and protect the most vulnerable. Given the rate at which Covid-19 is spreading this should be done as soon as safely possible, particularly for older or unwell people, pregnant women and those who can be released on temporary licence without posing any risk to the wider public. Steps should also be taken to reduce the number of new custodial sentences at this time of crisis, reserving them for only the most serious offences.”
Meanwhile, he stressed that it is “vitally important” that the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service continues extending access to phones and other opportunities for inmates who must remain in prison so that they can stay in touch with their families, now that visits have been suspended.
“I understand that releasing people from custody will increase pressure on civil society, given that many will not have regular income or secure accommodation. Where possible I hope Catholics will support parish initiatives in response to the pandemic and contribute to charities through the National Emergencies Trust appeal,” the bishop added. “Above all, we pray for those in prison and everyone affected by this crisis.”
Picture: Bars shown in a prison. (Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT/TT News Agency/PA).