HUNDREDS of inmates at HMP Usk and Prescoed are doubled up in cells designed to hold one person, figures reveal.

Pressure is being put on Justice Secretary Robert Buckland to allow convicted criminals to head home to prevent more deaths in England and Wales' crowded prisons during the coronavirus outbreak, after Northern Ireland signalled it would let out more than 10 per cent of those behind bars.

Ministry of Justice figures show that of the 525 prisoners at HMP Usk / Prescoed in 2018-19, 312 (59 per cent) were living in crowded conditions.

Of those, all were prisoners doubled up in a single-occupancy cell.

Calls for action from human rights groups and a prisons watchdog came as the Ministry of Justice confirmed that 65 prisoners had tested positive for coronavirus in 23 different prisons, as of Monday, March 31.

Jails across England and Wales have been put on lockdown with all visits cancelled, however, it's feared that prison crowding could lead to jails becoming overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Staff numbers in prisons are already stretched, with around 3,500 employees, representing about a tenth of the workforce, currently in self-isolation due to Covid-19.

Nationally, the prison overcrowding rate fell to 22.5 per cent in 2019, from 24.2 per cent in 2018.

Crowding was particularly concentrated in male local prisons, which usually serve a court in the local authority area and predominantly hold remand and short sentence prisoners.

The rate of crowding at Usk / Prescoed in 2018-19 was up from 57.7 per cent in 2017-18. But a decade earlier, in 2008-09, the rate was zero per cent.

The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody said prisons should be only for "serious and violent offenders" at this time.

Juliet Lyon, IAPDC chairman, said: "Ministers and officials are faced with some of the most difficult decisions they have ever had to make, about balance of risk and the best ways to keep people safe.

"In an unprecedented public health crisis, it is not fair or proportionate to commit prisoners, and staff responsible for them, to try to survive in insanitary, overcrowded institutions devoid currently of independent oversight."

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said that decreasing the prison population and the number of people in immigration detention centres is a "crucial means of slowing the spread of Covid-19".

At the end of March, the Government announced that pregnant women in custody who don't pose a high risk of harm to the public would be temporarily released from prison on an electronic tag, to protect them and their unborn child from coronavirus.

A Prison Service spokeswoman said: "We have robust and flexible plans in place to protect the lives of our staff, prisoners and visitors, based on the latest advice from Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care."