The government is considering releasing some offenders from prisons in England and Wales to ease pressures caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said the virus poses an “acute” risk in prisons, many of which are overcrowded.
Some 3,500 prison staff – about 10% of the workforce – were off work on Tuesday because they were ill or self-isolating, a committee of MPs was told.
Mr Buckland said releasing some inmates could help to “alleviate” pressures.
The justice secretary told the Commons justice committee he was “keen” to make use of release on temporary licence – where prisoners are let out for short periods, after a risk assessment.
Mr Buckland said he was looking “very carefully” at whether or not 50 pregnant prisoners could be released.
He also indicated some of the 9,000 inmates who are on remand, awaiting trial, could be transferred to bail hostels, if it was safe to do so.
Mr Buckland said the prison service must “balance the protection of life with the need to protect the public”, but releasing prisoners early could help to “alleviate some of the pressures” the virus was having on the system.
However, he pointed out that releasing more prisoners would be a “challenge” for probation staff.
Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs, Allan Hogarth, said elderly prisoners and those with underlying medical conditions should “immediately” be considered for release “if they do not pose a threat to themselves or society”.