Milton Keynes prison not overcrowded but coronavirus contingency plans put in place

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Release of elderly, sick and vulnerable prisoners just one of a host of measures suggested

The coronavirus could be a ticking timebomb for many prisons, not least in Milton Keynes.

Although Woodhill Prison isn't overcrowded - according to figures from the Ministry of Justice - the UK government has already announced it intends to ease pressure on prisons by increasing the number of prisoners released on home detention curfew with a tag.

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Woodhill has a capacity of 539 and there are currently 500 prisoners at the Category A men's prison - but with the coronavirus outbreak there are fears it could spread quickly among staff and inmates.

HMP Woodhill MKHMP Woodhill MK
HMP Woodhill MK | other

Overcrowded prisons could “become like 18th-century breeding grounds of disease” unless the government takes action such as releasing prisoners early, a campaign group has warned.

The release of elderly, sick and vulnerable prisoners, where safe, is just one of a host of suggested measures put forward by the Howard League for Penal Reform in a letter to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland.

Chief executive Frances Crook said: “This is important for staff at a time when many prisons are grossly crowded and insanitary.

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"We already know that some officers and prisoners have been diagnosed with coronavirus and the very last thing we want is for prisons to become like 18th-century breeding grounds of disease.”

More than half of prisons and England and Wales are overcrowded, leading to fears that the coronavirus could easily spread among inmates and staff.

The prison population includes about 1,800 inmates aged 70 or over (4 per cent), putting them at higher risk of developing life-threatening complications if infected.

Across the world, leaders have been taking a variety of approaches to try to keep prison staff and inmates safe amid the global outbreak. Earlier this month, 12 prisoners died in Italy after rioting broke out at jails in response to restrictions imposed on family visits.

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Here, the Government has announced a plan to release more prisoners fitted with electronic tags, but said the move was not linked to the current pandemic.

Prisons minister Lucy Frazer has said the safety of prisoners, staff and visitors is paramount.

In a statement last week, she said: “Prisons have existing, well-developed policies and procedures in place to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases.

"This means prisons are well prepared to take immediate action whenever cases or suspected cases are identified, including isolating individuals where necessary.”

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She said good hygiene was being promoted on posters throughout the prison system and handwashing facilities were available for staff, prisoners and visitors.

She said: “We have procedures agreed with our public health colleagues for protecting staff in the workplace but, like any member of the community, some prison staff may need to self-isolate in line with public health advice, or may become infected.

"We are taking steps to boost staff availability and so enable us to look after prisoners properly and minimise the impacts on prison regimes of staff absences.”