New measures coming to keep Winnipeg Remand Centre population down during pandemic: defence lawyers
New admission to provincial jails to be funneled through remand centre, with mandatory isolation upon entry
Manitoba Justice is set to introduce new measures to reduce congestion and keep the coronavirus outside the walls of the Winnipeg Remand Centre, according to the association for Manitoba's defence lawyers.
The Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba says provincial justice officials confirmed on Monday that two key changes will be made in the coming days.
Starting April 2, in-person visits inside Manitoba jails will be banned entirely, and replaced with a dedicated phone system. While the province says it is encouraging remote meetings, lawyers will still be allowed to visit clients in-person in facilities other than the Remand Centre.
As well, police and justice officials are moving toward processing bail applications directly from police detachment holding cells via telephone.
"The number of court hearings that can be held by phone will also be increased to avoid unnecessary transportation of people out of their communities," a press release by the Manitoba government says.
Under normal circumstances, a person detained by the Winnipeg police would usually be transported to the Remand Centre and then brought before a judge or justice of the peace.
"Rather than have someone end up in the Remand Centre, with whatever risk that may entail, they're doing what they can to limit that and try to … prevent exposure to COVID-19 if they can," says Chris Gamby, a Winnipeg-based lawyer and spokesperson for the defence lawyers association.
Gamby says other measures have also been announced, such as requiring a quarantine period before a new inmate who may not have qualified for bail can be integrated into the general population.
"We've received word that [the Remand Centre] is essentially being treated as a quarantine facility, so individuals are quarantined when they come in for 14 days, prior to being shipped out to the other institutions," he said.
The province says starting Wednesday, all new admissions to any correction centre in the province will be funnelled through the Winnipeg Remand Centre.
The Remand Centre is of special concern because it has been chronically operating over its maximum capacity of 289 for years, according to reports.
Justice officials confirmed to CBC that all intermittent sentences — those where an offender may be allowed to serve time on weekends so they can work during the week, for example — have already been suspended.
But while Gamby says new guidelines and procedures have been rapidly coming in to lawyers from Manitoba Justice over the past week, the government would not confirm any of the coming changes in an email to CBC News.
A government spokesperson said justice operations are being adjusted, and officials are taking direction from medical and public health experts.
"All of our facilities have plans and procedures in place to isolate and provide care to individuals who may require it," wrote the spokesperson.
"Decisions on when to test for COVID-19 are made by our facilities' health-care providers, based on the criteria set out by public health."
Manitoba Justice confirmed that in addition to high-traffic areas being disinfected using fogging equipment, protocols for the use of personal protective equipment are in place to ensure the safety of staff and inmates.
Last week, Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, announced that the COVID-19 testing criteria would be expanded to include symptomatic inmates or correctional staff.
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On Monday, the Correctional Service of Canada said it had confirmed COVID-19 cases at two federal prisons in Quebec, with both inmates and staff testing positive — the first confirmed cases in a federal corrections facility, CSC said.
There have been no COVID-19 cases reported at Stony Mountain federal penitentiary in Manitoba so far.
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On Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair asked the heads of Canada's prison systems to consider early releases for certain inmates to reduce the risk of transmission.
Asked if Manitoba Justice has issued any directive on early release for non-violent offenders, the department responded that under existing regulations, the government has the ability to manage the release dates of inmates in custody while taking steps to protect public safety.
"All inmates who are released would have a release plan completed with their correctional case manager to ensure there are appropriate supports in place," the department said.