Prisoners across Europe are set to be released early as governments battle to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Health experts say it thrives in cramped jails and freeing up space could allow for social distancing to slow transmission.
Mark Fairhurst, chairman of the UK’s prison workers union, told Euronews it was not safe having prisoners tightly held together during a pandemic.
“It’s very very difficult inside a closed prison because it’s so confined," he said. "Narrow landings, cell doors next to each other. It’s a very restricted area. Adhering to those social distancing guidelines can be done but it means we have to severely restrict our regime.”
The UK government has set a target of releasing 4,000 prisoners early as a way to deal with the health crisis, but unions say it’s not being done fast enough.
“We’re hoping that that process can be streamlined and we can get these prisoners out because as far as I’m aware, there’s not that many prisoners that have been released since that announcement," said Fairhurst. "It’s in the dozens rather than the hundreds so that really needs to be addressed.”
The slow pace of release is something acknowledged by the UK government. Prisons minister Lucy Frazer told fellow MPs this week it was hoping to speed up the release of low-risk offenders in the coming days.
“In relation to the wider release, the early releases, we released four men last week and are planning to release a significant number this week," she said.
"We have been, over the last few days, conducting the absolute necessary checks to ensure the people we will be releasing early do not pose a risk to the public."
There is no EU-wide policy on reducing prison populations, but individual member states are taking their own steps.
France, Germany and Greece have all made moves to allow for early release, with more countries expected to join the effort to improve social distancing for those incarcerated.