U.K. to Release Up to 4,000 Inmates as Virus Cases Grow

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As many as 4,000 low-risk prisoners will be freed in England and Wales as coronavirus cases inside prisons climb and the U.K. government looks for new ways to curb the spread of the pandemic.

Selected inmates with less than two months to serve on their terms will be released and monitored with electronic devices, the Ministry of Justice said in a statement over the weekend.

“This is an unprecedented situation because if coronavirus takes hold in our prisons, the NHS could be overwhelmed and more lives put at risk,” Justice Minister Robert Buckland said in a statement, referring to the U.K’s National Health Service.

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The U.K. government decision follows similar moves in the U.S. where those charged with lesser offenses such as shoplifting and prostitution may be released amid concerns that the virus could spread quickly in overcrowded county jails.

More: Inmates Going Free Over Virus Fears Spark Anti-Jail Push

About 90 inmates in the U.K. and 15 staff have tested positive for the virus, the ministry said. There are as many as 1,200 inmates in self-isolation, BBC reported on Saturday.

Two employees at the Pentonville Prison in north London died after showing symptoms of the virus, the BBCreported, citing the Prison Officers’ Association. Both men were in their 60s and it was not known if they had underlying health conditions, the BBC said.

Northern Ireland is separately releasing 200 of its 1,500 prisoners. England and Wales had about 82,500 prisoners incarcerated at the beginning of April

Anyone convicted of violent or sexual offenses won’t be eligible for the early release and neither will prisoners jailed for crimes such as coughing in the face of police or stealing protective equipment.

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