The city's main jail is running an unprecedented new regime which is so far helping to keep official cases of coronavirus at bay, senior officers have said.

Insiders at HMP Liverpool spoke to the ECHO about how life had radically changed inside the Walton facility which houses 1,200 inmates.

Currently, there are no confirmed Covid-19 cases at HMP Liverpool, or the two Warrington prisons - Risley and Thorn Cross - which are all run by the Ministry of Justice.

There are also no official coronavirus cases at HMP Altcourse in Fazakerley, with a 1,300 capacity, which is run by security firm G4S.

Inmates at the Hornby Road lock-up - HMP Liverpool - are having showers and getting outside for exercise on a synthetic sports pitch as normal, although numbers of people allowed together are being thinned out.

Prisoners would normally eat meals in their cells, but now instead of up to 60 of them coming to the catering area together to collect food, they are being brought down in groups of about five.

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Visits from loved ones stopped a week ago, but inmates are now allowed extra time on the phone, and the use of Facetime is being increasingly considered.

The HMP Liverpool gym has been closed, and many extra-curricular activities, like education classes, have also stopped, although prisoners working in the kitchen can continue.

To appease prison guards, if any leave is cancelled in the coming weeks, management will "buy it back off them", it was added.

A figure of 12.5% of staff at the city jail are off self-isolating.

Exact numbers of those self-isolating with suspected symptoms at HMP Liverpool are not being confirmed by the Ministry of Justice.

But a well-placed source at Walton, where 400 uniformed staff work, claimed it currently stood at about five.

At another prison in Lancashire, for example, with almost half the number of occupants in comparison, there are nearly 10 in self-isolation, it was added.

Testing for coronavirus at HMP Liverpool, like jails nationally, remains a thorny issue, with no official testing for guards and other staff.

But promises are being made that will shortly be introduced.

At the moment, every employee entering HMP Liverpool undergoes a thermometer check before they are allowed inside.

If it records above 37.8C, the sign of a fever, a second test is taken a few minutes minutes later, with a staff member sent home if the result remains the same.

Instructions are then given to check on symptoms the next day before deciding whether to come into work.

Altcourse Prison

If a prisoner shows suspected Covid-19 symptoms, he or she will self-isolate.

One longstanding prison officer, with close to 30 years experience at HMP Liverpool, said: "The jail is coping far better than everyone expected, mainly because staff are working extra hours.

"In fairness to prisons nationally, they knew this was coming, so measures were put in place.

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"Officers are trying to look after the inmates and adhere to the strict new guidelines.

"One complaint is the lack of protective equipment, but that is a problem felt nationally in many different sectors and industries.

"The atmosphere is calm and settled with staff and prisoners getting on well, a well structured regime.

HMP Risley. Image from Google Streetview
HMP Risley. Image from Google Streetview

"The relationship between staff and management is also good, with a realisation that we all have to work together."

Outside of the northwest, the situation in jails looks more volatile.

Dave Cook, from the Prison Officers Association union, said as police forces are unable to help in jails due to their own staff shortages, members of the military could be drafted in.

He described jails as a "pressure cooker", with inmates locked up for 20 hours per day, and numbers that mean social distancing measures are "almost impossible" to enforce.

Mr Cook said: "The longer that it goes on, then the chance of violence and disorder increases.

"You only need to look at Italy.

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"Coronavirus went into every prison in Italy and they suffered riots and hostage-taking and everything else, so that is what the Prison Service are trying to avoid or trying to keep a control against, but as staff get contaminated - and they will - then the number of staff available will start to drop off."

As of 5pm on Tuesday, 69 prisoners have tested positive for Covid-19 across 25 government-run prisons, while 14 staff had tested positive across eight prisons.

Four prisoner escort and custody services staff had tested positive.

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."

John Whitwam, managing director for G4S, who run Altcourse, said: "The health and safety of our staff and the people in our care is our top priority and we have existing, well-developed policies and procedures in place to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases.

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“We are in regular discussion with Public Health England and following all national guidance.

"Any prisoners who have symptoms are self-isolating and in regular consultation with our on-site health professionals, and all remain able to contact their families and loved ones during this time."