Some prisoners could be released due to COVID-19 concerns in N.L. jails
Lawyer Bob Buckingham says jails are 'petri dishes' for coronavirus
The provincial government is considering granting temporary absences to prisoners serving sentences in jails around Newfoundland and Labrador.
Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said his department is consulting corrections staff and prosecutors about the best way to handle concerns about the spread of COVID-19 inside institutions.
"There are certain individuals inside for various reasons that we would be able to consider temporary absences for," Parsons told the St. John's Morning Show on Wednesday.
If we're going to take a humanitarian approach to this virus, that humanitarian approach should also apply to inmates.- Bob Buckingham
His comments came after lawyer Bob Buckingham called on the province to release as many prisoners as possible to protect them from the virus.
"They're basically petri dishes for the spread of the virus," Buckingham said of the jails. "Once someone gets infected in there, it's going to spread like a crashing avalanche."
Buckingham is one of many advocates around the world pushing for prisoners to be released amid the current pandemic.
He estimated about half the people in custody in Newfoundland and Labrador are awaiting trial, and have not been convicted of the charges they are facing.
"If we're going to take a humanitarian approach to this virus, that humanitarian approach should also apply to inmates."
He said it wouldn't just protect the inmates, but also the institutional workers who oversee them.
"What I'm advocating for is not just a protection for inmates. It's a protection for anyone who works in any of our correctional facilities across Newfoundland and Labrador."
Not a simple solution
Parsons encouraged people to apply for a bail hearing where applicable.
Anyone in custody longer than 90 days is also eligible for a mandatory bail review. While the provincial court is scaling back operations until May 22, all bail hearings and reviews will continue.
Buckingham said those proceedings have to take place with the judges giving special consideration to the state of COVID-19.
Parsons said it's not as easy as opening the doors and letting people go, however, since they also have to consider where people will end up.
Many people leaving jail do not have fixed addresses, and rely on various government departments for help landing on their feet. For a lot of people, they land in the province's shelter system before moving on to stable housing.
If prisoners are released en masse, it could further strain an already overloaded shelter system.
"It's not just a simple thing," Parsons said. "We already have a tremendous strain on the system. Any decision you make … there will be circumstances and there will be repercussions that you have to factor in and consider or else you're just going to create a situation elsewhere down the chain."
Buckingham said it would take a co-ordinated effort by justice, housing and municipal officials, and suggested they utilize the 20 per cent of city-owned affordable housing stock available in St. John's.
He believes the province needs to move fast.
"We should get people out before we are too late."