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. 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 ), putting them at higher risk of developing life-threatening complications if infected.
On Wednesday an 84-year-old sex offender locked up in at prison in Cambridgeshire became the first British prisoner to die after contracting coronavirus, as the number of inmates infected continued to rise.
As of March 24, prisons in England and Wales are closed to visitors.
HM Prison Wakefield is not considered to be overcrowded at 97 per cent capacity, but HM Prison New Hall at Flockton is overcrowded at 107 per cent capacity.
Women's open prison HM Prison Askham Grange in North Yorkshire is currently at 77 per cent capacity. Men open prison HM Prison Kirklevington Grange near Yarm is also not considered to be overcrowded and remains at 96 per cent capacity.
Male juvenile prison HM Prison Wetherby is at 74 per cent capacity.
As of Friday, March 20, visits were still going ahead at Strangeways, officially known as HMP Manchester, after a case of Covid-19 was confirmed there on Wednesday.
The prison is not overcrowded and chiefs said they were following Public Health advice to minimise the risk of further infection.
The Prison Officers’ Association said while “obviously staff are concerned” about disease, it was working with the Government on systems which would keep its members and the prisoners safe.
Assistant General Secretary Mick Pimblett said: “Overcrowding is a concern, due to the contingencies we have in place for prisoners who are showing symptoms of coronavirus.”
He said the current procedure was to isolate such prisoners on their own in a single cell, “but with overcrowding that will be a problem”.
He said one measure being considered was placing two prisoners showing symptoms into a cell together.
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.
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.”
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.”