Just 175 prisoners out of up to 4,000 have been freed early under emergency measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus behind bars, figures show.

Campaigners accused ministers of moving at a “glacial rate”, warning thousands were still being held in overcrowded conditions or in prolonged solitary confinement.

Low-risk inmates in England and Wales, who were within two months of their release date and had passed a risk assessment, were eligible to be let out on temporary licence under the scheme, which was brought in to avoid thousands of inmates – many who share cells – from becoming infected.

Pregnant prisoners – considered among people who could be most at risk from the virus – or inmates with children behind bars were also among those to be permitted temporary release on compassionate grounds.

The latest Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures from 3 April to 19 June show that out of the 175, 43 were granted compassionate release.

A blunder saw the programme temporarily suspended just weeks after being brought in after six inmates were freed by accident.

They had been let out too soon after an “administrative error” but were all taken back to prison, the MoJ said at the time.

Another plan to build 2,000 temporary prison cells has so far seen 896 earmarked in 26 sites but just 477 built so far and only 289 already in use.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

With the spread of coronavirus confirmed in almost every prison in the country, it is vital that as many people as possible are enabled to return to the community safely.

Instead, the glacial rate of early release means that tens of thousands of people are being held either in overcrowded conditions or prolonged solitary confinement.

Ministers must move more quickly to reduce the prison population and provide a purposeful regime that gives people an opportunity to make amends.

The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, earlier this week denied the release scheme was being “stood down” and insisted the department was “still using it in a careful way”.

Defending the department’s efforts, he told MPs they were initially faced with a “very alarming and stark set of predictions” but responded with a “regime that has saved lives and protected staff”.

His comments came after facing a string of legal challenges from charities early on in the crisis calling for urgent measures to protect staff and prisoners.

According to the latest available data, published in a weekly report for the first time, there are 510 prisoners in England and Wales who currently have confirmed symptoms of coronavirus.

Of those, 500 were in adult prisons and 10 in youth jails. All had tested positive for the virus.

So far, 23 prisoners and 21 offenders being supervised by probation have died during the pandemic with Covid-19 being the suspected cause, the figures also showed.

Some 79,600 inmates are currently behind bars, having dropped by 4,300 since 13 March due to the lack of new cases coming to court amid the outbreak

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