Senator calls for release of detainees to avoid potential COVID-19 “catastrophe” in prison

Senator calls for release of detainees to avoid potential COVID-19 "catastrophe" in prison

A Canadian senator asks the federal prison authorities to consider the immediate release of the detainees to stem a possible “catastrophe” from the COVID-19 prison.

To date, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Canadian prisons. The prison authorities tried to prevent the infectious disease from entering the prison walls in part by canceling the outside visitors.

The Correctional Service of Canada also says that its officials are considering how it could release some inmates to reduce the prison population, but have not yet done so, despite repeated calls from lawyers.

If the new coronavirus enters the walls of a prison, defenders fear that respiratory illnesses will spread faster than on a cruise ship – and potentially kill vulnerable, elderly and sick prisoners.

Ontario Senator Kim Pate, who chaired the Elizabeth Fry Society for decades before her appointment, is among those calling for parole.

“We just have to look at what happened on cruise ships that have been mass quarantined and can only imagine how worse it could be in a prison environment,” Pate told CBC News.

“I am extremely concerned that once COVID-19 hits prisons, it could be disastrous.”

Prisoners Safer at Home: Senator

Pate and David Milgaard – an Alberta-based prisoner rights advocate, to have been wrongly convicted – joined forces to raise awareness of the risk to detainees, who they believed were less able, during their incarceration, to practice the regime of intense hygiene and social distancing necessary to prevent infection.

The duo say they believe inmates will be safer from the highly contagious virus at home, rather than coping with the deadly disease when imprisoned in tight quarters.

Arriving Tuesday, the Correctional Service of Canada told CBC News that it was considering the idea.

“We are examining the options available to us in collaboration with the Parole Board of Canada and the flexibilities that exist to safely release offenders to the community,” said a spokesperson in a statement.

The statement also noted that “public safety is paramount”.

Other jurisdictions, of which Nova Scotia, released some prisoners under threat of COVID-19. Respiratory disease can affect people of all ages, but it is most dangerous for people over the age of 60 or those with pre-existing conditions.

“Could spread very quickly”

Dr. Ivan Zinger, the federal correctional investigator, said he identified hundreds of aging federal inmates after their parole eligibility date. He called last year for corrections to be released, but the agency did not do so.

“If it was, there would be fewer people to worry about,” said Zinger.

The investigator, who acts as an ombudsman, closely followed the agency’s response plan while filing complaints from inmates and staff. So far, the majority of complaints have concerned the feeling of discomfort regarding the health of a new person when transferred to a cell block.

“If it spreads, it could spread very quickly,” said Zinger.

Ivan Zinger, Correctional Investigator of Canada, asked the Correctional Service of Canada to release older inmates eligible for parole. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

To date, he has expressed satisfaction with the efforts of the Correctional Service of Canada to prevent infections and his plans to deal with the outbreaks.

To prepare for possible COVID-19 cases, correctional authorities have suspended their visits, most passes and releases. They also improved access to health care.

Zinger said he urged officials to make phone and video access more accessible and affordable. He said he was concerned about the mental health of the prisoners.

Although it was not part of his mandate, he said that he was monitoring what the provincial authorities were doing.

Zinger said provincial jails are more likely to house two or three inmates in a cell, which can increase the risk of spreading the disease.

Alberta urges house arrest

In Alberta, authorities have transferred certain convicted persons to house arrest.

“In light of COVID-19, as of March 20, offenders serving part of their intermittent sentence on weekends are under house arrest and their conditions are closely monitored by community corrections,” said the Alberta Department of Justice spokesperson Katherine Thompson in a news release.

“This will help reduce the number of people entering and leaving provincial correctional and remand centers to help prevent the spread of the virus.”

In an interview, Milgaard said that many people in prisons and prisons would like to help fight COVID-19 and could help in work programs to make personal protective equipment or build housing, for example. He and Pate heard from family members who would appreciate having their loved ones at home to help them.

David Milgaard spent 23 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murder. He is now defending those accused and convicted of crimes. (Chris Young / The Canadian Press)

Pate also referred to Zinger’s report, conducted with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which details the number of elderly and sick inmates who could be released without threatening public safety.

“We just have to look at what has happened with the cruise ship experience to show us how bad it can happen and what can lead to mass quarantines,” said Pate.

“These are individuals who had separate quarters, had some ability to use hygiene products, and we have seen how quickly the COVID-19 virus has spread in these environments.

“I think it would be disastrous if it happened in one or more prisons in this country.”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association also wrote a letter to the federal Minister of Justice Sunday to call for the release of the prisoners using existing legal tools.

President Michael Bryant noted that conditional, compassionate and other discretionary releases could help reduce overcrowding and reduce the potential spread of infection.

He also called on the authorities to ensure that the conditions of imprisonment “meet human standards”.

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