The Ministry of Justice has been accused of putting the public at risk after quietly transferring locked up offenders to open prisons in a move to ease a critical overcrowding crisis.
The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) said officials launched a new scheme to swap dozens of prisoners to Category D prisons at the end of September without conducting pre-transfer assessments that would decide if it was safe to send them to the open estate.
A leaked document, seen by the Guardian, shows that open prison staff were given days to prepare for the transfer. A prison governor wrote: “This is an urgent measure, the group of prisoners are being immediately and automatically recategorised and will arrive with us over the coming days.”
In an indication of the pressure on the system, the letter added: “This is an allocated move for the prisoner so they will not have had a choice about which open prison they have been sent to.
“They are unlikely to have anticipated moving to an open prison before release and the move will have happened at pace.
“The system is operating under extreme pressure and there is a need to maximise occupancy.”
According to the POA, officials launched the Restricted Open Estate Transfer (ROET) scheme at the end of September. During a Microsoft Teams meeting, the union’s officials were told there would not be pre-transfer assessments of each prisoner before they were moved.
Mark Fairhurst, acting national chair of the POA, said: “We warned them not to do this in September because we felt the public would be at risk if a pre-transfer assessment was not completed first by the offender management unit.
“They wanted to go ahead and do it anyway.”
The scheme, which was not announced publicly, was dropped by the MoJ on 9 October, officials said, and affected fewer than 50 prisoners, who were later assessed. The MoJ said it was not publicised, as it is an “operational measure to free up space in the jails and it was dropped because of other measures being brought in to ease overcrowding”.
An MoJ spokesperson said: “Fewer than 50 less serious offenders nearing their release date were transferred as they progressed towards moving back into the community at the end of their sentence. Any prisoners showing concerning or violent behaviour were excluded.”
The document has emerged as survivors of domestic abuse demanded urgent clarification over government plans to cut sentences for offenders imprisoned for less than four years amid concerns that it will free dozens of men convicted of stalking and actual bodily harm.
Their calls follow confirmation that the MoJ plans to ease the overcrowding crisis in 21 prisons in England and Wales by shortening the sentences of offenders by 18 days.
Ellie Butt, head of policy, public affairs and research at Refuge said: “Refuge is urgently calling for clarity following the secretary of state for justice’s announcement that ‘low-level offenders’ may be released from prison early under jail reforms and perpetrators may avoid prison if sentenced to less than 12 months.
“The secretary of state for justice must provide clear guidance to judges exempting VAWG [violence against women and girls] offences from this presumption.”
Harriet Wistrich, the director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said she supported in principle efforts to create a fairer justice system but added: “We have concerns that many domestic abusers and stalkers may slip through the net as the sentences passed in relation to some very dangerous men do not always reflect the level of danger they pose.
“While imposing strict licence conditions may in theory provide reassurance, we have seen far too many cases of murder and other serious violent offences committed by men in breach of their licence conditions.
“We are doubtful that the proposed injection of funds into the probation service will go anywhere near tackling severe under-resourcing of the probation service.”