Prison charities have launched legal action against the Justice Secretary claiming measures so far taken to address coronavirus behind bars are “unlawful” because they will have a “manifestly insufficient impact”.
Lawyers acting for the Howard League for Penal Reform and Prison Reform Trust have written to Robert Buckland with details of a proposed application for judicial review, should urgent action not be taken to address the concerns raised.
The two charities have repeatedly written to Mr Buckland in recent weeks raising concerns about the threat Covid-19 poses to inmates and staff.
The letter, sent by Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, said the charities “consider, however, that the measures currently in place have not and cannot result in the reduction in the numbers of people detained in prison necessary to prevent a loss of life on a massive scale”.
“Our clients contend that the current response is unlawful,” the letter added.
It asks for a “positive response” to the letter by 4pm on Tuesday, but adds: “We reserve the right to issue proceedings after that date.”
The news comes a day after campaign group the Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS) threatened legal action against the Government unless vulnerable and elderly prisoners are immediately released to protect them from contracting Covid-19.
Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in half of the prisons in England and Wales.
A total of 255 prisoners have tested positive for Covid-19 in 62 jails as of 5pm on Thursday, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said, and 13 inmates have died.
Some 138 prison staff have also contracted the virus in 49 prisons as well as seven prisoner escort and custody services staff.
There was also an “outbreak” of the disease at HMP Wymott in Lancashire over the weekend and inmates are being moved into single cells.
Some 700 staff have been tested and 6,268 were self-isolating, according to the latest available figures.
Meanwhile it emerged there is a suspected monthly backlog of more than 1,000 cases waiting to be heard by the Parole Board – which decides whether to release the most serious offenders.
But in the last month 150 decisions were made by the board directing the release of a prisoner.
Efforts are being made to conduct remote hearings or decide cases on paper where possible and appropriate. But the board is reluctant to determine certain cases – like those involving murderers, violent and sex offenders and terrorists – without a face-to-face hearing so these will most likely be delayed.
The MoJ plans to build some 2,000 single-occupancy temporary prison cells in the grounds of seven jails in a bid to prevent the spread of coronavirus to be used by low-risk category C and D offenders.
Self-isolating or symptomatic prisoners and those who have tested positive are put in a cell on their own, but those who have not displayed symptoms may still be sharing cells with other inmates.
The MoJ has also pledged to release up to 4,000 low-risk prisoners on temporary licence in a bid to ease overcrowding, as well as pregnant inmates and mothers behind bars with babies.
All offenders must pass a risk assessment before their release is approved.
So far, four men out of 4,000 have been temporarily freed, but prisons minister Lucy Frazer said there were plans to release a significant number this week.
Some 14 pregnant inmates and mothers with babies out of around 70 have been temporarily freed, she added.
As of Friday, the number of criminals behind bars in England and Wales had dropped by more than 1,000 in a fortnight to around 81,000.
David Lammy, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, called on Mr Buckland to take “this warning shot by these leading criminal justice NGOs very seriously”, adding: “Urgent action is needed to prevent a public health disaster in the justice system.”
The MoJ said it would respond to the letter in due course.
A spokesman added: “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.”