All visits have been cancelled to jails in England and Wales as the outbreak worsens.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said that prisons are now operating on an “exceptional delivery model” – used in pandemic situations.
Prisoners will spend more time in their cells to help increase self-isolation among inmates, he said.
Prison gyms have also been closed.
So far 13 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 as have 12 prison staff. Some 4,000 prison workers are currently self-isolating.
POA, the union which represents prison officers, praised the decision to place prisons on immediate lockdown.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said: “We have suspended all prison visits in England and Wales for today.
“This is while we ensure safe and secure functioning of our prisons while enforcing social distancing.
“If you have a visit booked today, please do not attend.”
Downing Street said there were “robust and flexible plans” to keep staff and prisoners safe.
Prisons and the Ministry of Justice were examining how the social distancing rules could be complied with.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We do recognise the importance of continued contact with family.”
There are around 83,000 prisoners in the UK and 24,000 prison officers.
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