LEICESTER, United Kingdom – England’s Catholic Church is calling on the UK government to release some prisoners to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

“The tens of thousands of women and men in our overcrowded prisons are at particular risk from this pandemic. They are no less deserving of safety and healthcare than anyone else in our society,” said Bishop Richard Moth of Arundel and Brighton, who heads the prisons desk for the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales.

At least two prisoners in the UK have died from COVID-19, both with underlying conditions.

The UK Ministry of Justice says existing, well-developed procedures are in place to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases and prisons are prepared if cases are identified.

The government has instituted safe distancing policies, meaning that prisoners can no longer take part “in usual recreational activities such as using the gym, going to worship or visiting the library.” In addition, family visits to prisons have been suspended.

However, considering how easily contagious diseases can spread in institutional settings, several advocates are calling on the UK government to give early release to prisoners approaching the end of their sentences, and releasing some non-violent offenders.

On Monday, the prison service in Northern Ireland announced it is releasing a little over 10 percent of its prison population “temporarily” to protect the inmates and staff of the prison service.

“It is very encouraging that ministers are considering releasing some people, to relieve pressure and protect the most vulnerable,” Moth said in a March 30 statement.

“Given the rate at which COVID-19 is spreading this should be done as soon as safely possible, particularly for older or unwell people, pregnant women and those who can be released on temporary license without posing any risk to the wider public. Steps should also be taken to reduce the number of new custodial sentences at this time of crisis, reserving them for only the most serious offences,” the bishop continued.

“I understand that releasing people from custody will increase pressure on civil society, given that many will not have regular income or secure accommodation. Where possible I hope Catholics will support parish initiatives in response to the pandemic and contribute to charities through the National Emergencies Trust appeal,” he continued.

Moth also said “it is vitally important” for the authorities to continue extending access to telephones, so that prisoners can keep in touch with their families.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome