Inmate population vulnerable during COVID-19 pandemic, lawyers say

Two Edmonton criminal lawyers are calling on the federal and provincial governments to reveal plans for preventing and managing a coronavirus outbreak in the country's jails and prisons.

Lawyer predicts there could eventually be a coronavirus case in all Canadian jails

Defence lawyer Tom Engel says he's concerned about what could happen if there was a COVID-19 outbreak at the Edmonton Remand Centre, pictured here. (CBC)

Two Edmonton criminal lawyers are calling on the federal and provincial governments to reveal plans for preventing and managing a potential COVID-19 outbreak in the country's jails and prisons. 

On Tuesday morning, 13 Edmonton Remand Centre inmates were loaded into the back of a prisoner cage van designed to hold 20 passengers. 

The inmates were taken to the Edmonton law courts, then placed into cells in the basement of that facility. Criminal defence lawyer Tom Engel thinks it's likely they were not able to even wash their hands, much less practice social distancing. 

"This is putting at risk not only the prisoners themselves, but the sheriffs who have to deal with them and everybody in the courthouse who comes into close proximity," Engel said. 

On Wednesday afternoon, the Justice and Solicitor General associate deputy minister addressed Engel's concerns in an email response that Engel shared with the media. 

"The department and its partners continue to look at ways to ensure whenever possible that both CCTV and social distancing practices are used, including in inmate transport vehicles and waiting areas," Dennis Cooley wrote. 

Engel is equally concerned about what's happening inside prisons, jails and remand centres to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. 

"Thus far, we have received nothing that satisfies us that appropriate measures are being taken," Engel told CBC News. 

This week he sent an email to all federal, provincial and territorial justice ministers in his capacity as president of the Canadian Prison Law Association. 

Engel called on the country's justice ministers to observe human rights while assuring prisoner health and safety. He described the inmate population as one of society's most vulnerable and high risk to the pandemic

"We know that the hygiene is not up to snuff," Engel said. "We know that the health care is far inferior to that in the community. And they're all in close proximity and the staff are in close proximity to the prisoners as well."

After more than a week of trying to get answers, Engel is becoming increasingly frustrated with what he sees as a lack of transparency from the Alberta government. 

"We're very concerned that inadequate measures are being taken there and they seem to have their heads stuck in the sand," Engel said. 

He's particularly concerned about inmates at the Edmonton Remand Centre, where prisoners often serve very short periods of incarceration. 

A typical cell at the Edmonton Remand Centre holds two inmates. (CBC)

"It could just be days, but they could get infected during that period of time and bring it out into the community," Engel said. 

CBC News has been told by two sources that a handful of inmates have been tested for the coronavirus and at least two are in isolation. 

A spokesperson for Alberta Justice would only say no one has tested positive at any of the province's jails, remand centres or youth correctional facilities. 

Engel fears it's just a matter of time before the virus spreads to the inmate population. 

"I think it would be impossible for there not to be a case eventually in every jail in Canada," he said.

Avoiding custody in the first place

The president of the Alberta Prison Justice Society is also calling on the government and Crown to exercise discretion with inmates. 

In a letter sent Wednesday to federal and provincial officials along with the commissioner of Correctional Service Canada, Amanda Hart-Dowhun asked for greater transparency and made a number of suggestions including: 

  • Heightened sanitation and inmate access to hygiene and sanitation products
  • Increased screening and active access to health care 
  • Considering temporary release, especially for older inmates or for those at a heightened risk of complications from COVID-19
  • Excusing anyone ordered to serve intermittent or weekend sentences 

Hart-Dowhun said she's encouraged by positions now being taken by Crown prosecutors to keep people out of custody and agreeing to bail. 

"They are being far more flexible as far as releasing people on bail," Hart-Dowhun said. "They're also being more flexible as far as resolving matters entirely at a time served and non-custodial way."

Both Hart-Dowhun and Engel think there's likely a heightened sense of fear inside the country's jails and prisons. 

"I would think that they're scared of contracting COVID-19," Engel said. "And they're already under high stress." 


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.