Coronavirus in Yorkshire: Former prisons chief calls for early releases amid Covid-19 crisis
and live on Freeview channel 276
Lord Ramsbotham said he was "very worried" about the effect of the crisis on the country's jails, saying prison staff depleted by the virus would not be able to handle the crisis.
His comments came in a letter written with a cross-party coalition of 50 fellow members of the House of Lords, police and crime commissioners, leading academics and charities, who all urged ministers to suspend short jail sentences.
"The remand prisoners in particular should be let out," Lord Ramsbotham said.
"They should also examine indeterminate sentence prisoners."
The peer added the jail system now suffered from an acute lack of experienced officers since it had lost the equivalent of 80,000 years of operational expertise through staff cuts.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland has sanctioned the early release of 69 pregnant women and mothers and babies from jails, but has resisted calls for the release of short-term prisoners.
Andrea Albutt, the president of the Prison Governors' Association, said: "Prisons are now at the point where a decision must be made and implemented immediately on early release."
However, a Ministry of Justice spokesman told the paper there were currently "no plans to end short-term prison sentences".
Alternatives such as transferring prisoners to Army barracks are said to be under consideration.