London

Lawyers, Crown attorneys working to reduce London's jail population

Six defence lawyers have volunteered to handle the cases of more than 70 of their colleagues, an attempt by London's legal community to reduce the number of people going into court and possibly being exposed to COVID-19.

6 defence lawyers have volunteered to do the bulk of appearances of behalf of clients

The Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London, Ont., has one of the highest numbers of inmate deaths in Canada. (CBC)

The population of London's overcrowded and unsanitary Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre has been reduced by 60 people in the last week, thanks to lawyers and Crown attorneys digging through their files to try to release inmates who are not violent and whose cases can be managed out of custody. 

The jail is down to about 320 inmates, said lawyer Kevin Egan, who advocates for the men and women imprisoned there and is heading a class-action lawsuit against the province over the conditions at the jail. 

The jail was originally built to house 150 inmates in the late 1970s

"If we're able to let these people out now, in this time of crisis, it kind of begs the question why they've been locked up in the first place," said Egan, who is working from home and has been unable to get into the jail in the last week, because there are frequent lockdowns.

Lawyers have been seeing their clients in an area previously reserved for family visits, he said, with a glass divider in between the two people. 

Lawyers collaborating with Crowns

Inmates who have been released because the province expanded the Temporary Absence Permit (TAP) program, which allows inmates to be away from the jail but still remain under the justice system's watchful eye. 

Six London defence lawyers have volunteered to handle the cases of more than 70 of their colleagues, an attempt by London's legal community to reduce the number of people going into the St. Thomas courthouse and possibly being exposed to COVID-19. 

London cases are currently being heard in St. Thomas because the London courthouse has had two confirmed and two suspected cases of COVID-19 among its staff. 

Lawyers are trying to trim the ranks in EMDC because an illness could quickly spread through its halls. 

EMDC a 'Petri dish'

Inmates in the jail share showers, common areas and cells, and it's nearly impossible to adhere to proper hand-washing and two-metre distance rules set out as guidelines by public health officials. 

"We cannot look at our jails as a place where people just go to die," Demelo said. 

"You have a number of people who are in close proximity, using the same things over and over again without always proper cleaning, and it's a Petri dish for the spread of this virus." 

We are certainly hearing the panic in our clients' voices when they call.- Lawyer Cassandra Demelo

Defence and Crown attorneys are looking at which non-violent offenders they can get out of the jail, she said. 

"We're looking at, is there some sort of plan that we can put in place that will balance all of the competing interests? Non-violent offenders can easily be put on some sort of plan that mitigates their danger to society while at the same time getting them out of the potential situation of being infected in jail with no or very little access to medical care.

"We are certainly hearing the panic in our clients' voices when they call." 

Other inmates are seeing their cellmates getting released and are angry that they're not getting out, too, she said. Many people inside EMDC have not been found guilty of crimes. 

Those serving weekend sentences have been told they don't have to report to the jail for the time being. 

The province has said there have been no positive cases of COVID-19 inside EMDC, though one contractor inside Windsor's South West Detention Centre has tested positive, as well as an inmate in the Toronto South Detention Centre. 

One worker at each of the Toronto South Detention Centre and the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre have tested positive. 

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