Some inmates being released to ease COVID-19 concerns about N.W.T. jails

Some prisoners in Northwest Territories jails are being temporarily released as part of an effort to reduce the risk COVID-19 poses to inmates and staff.

Corrections says, as of last week, enough room for separate cells for each inmate

In an effort to address the risks COVID-19 poses to inmates and staff, the Justice Department and the Prosecution Service of Canada are taking steps to release some prisoners serving sentences and some who are in jail awaiting trial. Officials say that, as of Friday, there was enough room in the three jails, including the North Slave Correctional Complex, to allow each inmate to have his or her own cell. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

Some prisoners in Northwest Territories jails are being temporarily released as part of an effort to reduce the risk COVID-19 poses to staff and inmates.

Steps being taken by the N.W.T. Justice Department are detailed in a letter responding to calls last week from defence lawyers for measures to reduce the risks the virus poses to inmates.

According to the letter, justice officials have been reviewing the files of inmates with less than a month left on their sentence. Prisoners who do not pose a risk to public safety and have supports outside jail are being temporarily released.

"In the coming days a similar review will be expanded to include inmates with less than three months remaining on their sentences," said Kim Schofield, the assistant deputy minister of justice, in the March 27 letter.

'Happy they have taken this step'

Inmates serving time on weekends have also been temporarily excused from serving their sentences.

"The present inmate count in each correctional facility allows the housing of one inmate per cell," noted Schofield.

One of the defence lawyers who called for steps to be taken to protect inmates said he's satisfied with the response.

"We are happy that they have taken this step," said Yellowknife lawyer Peter Harte. "And we are very happy that the prisoner numbers permit them to take the isolation steps that they describe."

Signs have been posted in the jails reminding inmates and staff to take preventative steps, such as frequent hand washing and maintaining a safe distance from others.

Incoming inmates have to fill out a questionnaire that screens them for symptoms of COVID-19. If they do have symptoms they will be isolated from other inmates and be tested for the virus, according to the Department.

Inmates already in jail who show symptoms will also be isolated and tested. While symptoms persist they may be required to wear a mask. Staff dealing with symptomatic inmates may also be required to wear protective equipment including gloves, a gown, mask and protective glasses.

CBC requested an interview with Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek for this story but she was not available.

Prosecutor makes offers for release of prisoners awaiting trial

In another effort to reduce the population in territorial jails, the prosecutor's office has completed a review of the files of more than 40 inmates being held in jail while awaiting trial, also known as remand.

Chief prosecutor Alex Godfrey said offers have been made to the defence lawyers who represent many of those inmates. The offers include conditions, such as a release plan and guarantor, under which the Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) would consent to release.

"There's no deadline," said Godfrey of the offers. "We left it in the hands of defence counsel to get in touch with their clients and respond."

Godfrey said the PPSC decided, in some of the prisoners' cases, that no plan would be sufficient to justify release.

A case in court next week will give an indication of what, if any, allowances the courts are willing to make to reduce the risk posed by COVID-19 in jails.

Harte will be arguing for the release of one of his clients on bail. Unlike inmates on remand, who are presumed innocent, the client, Darcy Oake, has been convicted of trafficking furanyl fentanyl and other drug-related crimes and is awaiting sentencing.

Oake was let out on bail five months after his arrest, but later breached his bail conditions. He applied to be released on bail twice after that and was denied each time. Both times the judge said releasing him would shake public confidence in the justice system.

Harte is also applying for bail for another of his clients, Colten McNeely, who is awaiting sentencing for manslaughter.