Hundreds of inmates at Winchester prison 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, after Northern Ireland signalled it would let out more than 10% of those behind bars.

Ministry of Justice figures show that of the 577 prisoners at HMP Winchester in 2018-19, 292 (51%) were living in crowded conditions.

Of those, 273 were prisoners doubled up in a single-occupancy cell, while another 19 were living in cells with more than one other inmate.

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% in 2019, from 24.2% 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 Winchester in 2018-19 was down from 51.2% in 2017-18. But a decade earlier, in 2008-09, the rate was 59.7%.

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."