Prisoner let out under early release system describes chaos amid chronic overcrowding

Chris* had spent more than two years in prison, serving a sentence for grievous bodily harm (GBH.)

To his surprise, he was released just weeks ago - a month early - under a controversial scheme to ease overcrowding in prisons across England and Wales. But he paints a picture of chaos.

Describing it as a "rollercoaster", he says there was a "mix-up" and "the staff didn't really know what was going on".

It started when he was on the phone to his family from inside prison. "They said, 'we're going to see you today, you're getting released'.

"And I said: 'No I'm not'."

His family had been given the wrong date. His release wouldn't happen for another week. And yet the chaos, according to Chris, only continued.

He was selected for early release and told he was a "low risk" to the public, but the early release prisoner scheme comes under continued scrutiny.

The Prison Governors Association today warned the scheme would not have sufficient impact to ease overcrowding, and suggested the prison service could find itself unable to accept prisoners from courts "within weeks" because jails are so full.

Meanwhile, leading domestic abuse charities have shared with Sky News a letter, sent to justice secretary Alex Chalk, raising serious concerns about the scheme.

The end of the custody supervised licence scheme (ECSL) means eligible prisoners can now be released up to 70 days before the end of their sentences.

It allows offenders serving sentences of less than four years to leave prison ahead of time.

The government first launched the measure in October 2023, initially allowing prisoners to be released 18 days early.

Anyone convicted of a sexual, terrorist or serious violent offence is excluded.

But probation staff have consistently raised fears about the extent and pace at which the measure is being expanded, saying the release of prisoners is being sped up without the time for sufficient checks.

A probation worker told Sky News: "Just because they're not doing a long sentence, that doesn't mean people are not deemed to be a high risk in the public domain. And we wouldn't have time to put in place safeguards, or do any checks."

'I was very angry and upset'

On the morning Chris was freed, he says there was a knock on his cell door and he was told to head down to reception. Once there, he says he saw other prisoners being released, their discharge grants being handed out.

But when it was his turn, he says he was told his name wasn't on the list.

"At that point, I was very angry and upset," he said.

"A week before, they'd told me I was getting released and now they were doing the same thing again."

Frustrated, he sat in the prison reception for hours, while his family waited outside.

After about three hours, he says a prison worker appeared and apologetically explained that since it was an early release, there was a "mix-up with the systems".

His case hadn't been transferred from one computer system to the other.

This is just one man's story, but it shows the issues with an emergency measure that has been regularly extended with little notice for those handling and processing offenders - finding them accommodation, or providing the necessary support on leaving prison.

The letter sent to the justice secretary from leading women's charities, including Refuge and Women's Aid, calls for perpetrators of domestic abuse and stalking to be exempt from the scheme.

"There is a significant disconnect between government rhetoric on VAWG [Violence Against Women And Girls] and announcements such as the expansion of the early release scheme, that will place survivors, and women and girls more broadly, at risk from dangerous offenders of VAWG," it reads.

"We are prioritising solving a problem about prison overcrowding over the safety of victims," the domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales, Nicole Jacobs, told Sky News.

"I have genuine fears for victims," she said.

These calls follow the publication of a report into HMP Lewes by the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

An inspection found "safe risk management" being undermined by the early release scheme. It cited one example of a prisoner who had their release date brought forward despite deeming him a "risk to children", with a "history of stalking, domestic abuse, and being subject to a restraining order".

Chief inspector of prisons Charlie Taylor said the eligibility net for this scheme was "cast fairly wide".

"Inevitably, if you have an early release scheme and the parameters are simply that if you serve less than four years, you're not a sex offender, a terrorist or a life sentence prisoner... there are some people within that net who will be designated as high risk of harm."

The overcrowding crisis in prisons extends beyond the early release scheme.

In recent weeks, a number of measures have been triggered by the government to help ease capacity.

Operation Early Dawn, invoked earlier this month, will see defendants in police custody remain there, rather than being transferred to magistrates' courts for bail hearings, in case there is no space in jail cells to accommodate them.

Police are also being told to consider pausing "non-priority" arrests until there is enough capacity in prisons across England and Wales.

Figures published on Friday showed 87,089 people are currently behind bars in England and Wales.

The number of people that can be held in "safe and decent accommodation" in prison, known as the "certified normal accommodation" or "uncrowded capacity", is considered by the Ministry of Justice to be 79,615.

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That means the current overall system is at 109% capacity, or overcrowded.

Chris's story is symptomatic of a prison system that is overpopulated and under pressure.

He believes it is right that offenders are let out early to relieve capacity, but says he appreciates concerns the public might have.

'Everyone deserves a second chance'

"I learned a lot," he said.

"At the end of the day, people learn and obviously people change. Everyone deserves a second chance."

The government has previously said that the ECSL scheme is about protecting the public, designed to ensure there is enough space to keep putting the most ‘serious’ offenders behind bars.

It maintains there are ‘strict eligibility criteria’ for releasing people, and says the Prison Service retains discretion to prevent the release of any offender where early release presents a higher risk than if they were released at their automatic release date.

Ministers have previously said that any released offender remains subject to probation supervision and stringent licence conditions.

*Chris is a pseudonym we are using to protect his identity.