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N.W.T. Justice Department releases some of its plan for N.W.T. jails amid COVID-19

The N.W.T. Justice Department has released information on its website about how its jails will protect inmates and workers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Plan includes keeping one inmate per cell and details on releasing non-violent inmates

Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek. The department has released some aspects of how N.W.T. jails plan to address COVID-19. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The N.W.T. Justice Department has released information on its website about how its jails will protect inmates and workers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plans include measures to limit the number of inmates in cells to one, as well as some details on the release of non-violent inmates.

Defence lawyers wrote a letter dated Monday asking for transparency on plans for N.W.T. jails, and the release of inmates to quell a potentially "catastrophic" COVID-19 outbreak in those facilities. On Tuesday, prosecutors announced they will review which inmates can be released from Northwest Territories jails to lower the inmate population.

Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek said that for safety reasons, her department will not make their plans entirely public.

As a defence lawyer, you're always worried about the consequences for your client.- Peter Harte, Defence lawyer

That reintegration has to be calculated, said Wawzonek, who welcomed the letter and said her department had been discussing these issues proactively.

"Reintegration into communities is something that needs to be done carefully and appropriately for the safety of the inmate, as well as for the safety of the communities," she said.

The plan also includes information about preventative measures in the jails themselves.

If an inmate shows symptoms of COVID-19, they will be given a procedural mask and placed in their own cell in isolation until they are medically cleared to return.

Corrections officers will wear protective equipment like gloves, a gown, and a mask if an inmate has symptoms. If an inmate has no symptoms, they will wear only gloves.

The jails have stopped personal visits, which have been replaced with additional phone calls to family and friends. Inmates can still write letters and in exceptional circumstances, like a family member's death or illness, visitors may be allowed.

How inmate release will work

Inmates can apply for temporary absence, which is then reviewed by a case manager and the warden.

Wawzonek said case workers are deemed essential and that there will be enough of them to process applications. CBC learned Tuesday that prosecutors reviewing cases would pursue "very stringent conditions" for release. 

Criminal defence lawyer Peter Harte said people need transparency on how N.W.T. jails will address the pandemic. He is one of 15 lawyers who signed a letter calling for the calculated release of inmates. (CBC)

Defence lawyers, in their letter, asked for prisoners who don't present safety concerns to be released. They asked for people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 to have their applications for release considered first. 

Asked about public safety fears, Lawyer Peter Harte, who is a signatory to the letter, said people at the N.W.T.'s three facilities have "common sense."

Harte said he does not expect that "all of a sudden a bunch of people who would realistically be considered dangerous will be released to create safety issues."

"It's just not going to happen," he said. 

Defence lawyers still want transparency

N.W.T. defence lawyers have asked for more details on what happens to their clients when they enter facilities under the pandemic plan, said Harte.

"One of the reasons that we've asked in the letter for the plan is because we really have no clue," he said. 

"As a defence lawyer, you're always worried about the consequences for your client, of the decision to incarcerate him or her. And when that ends up being a bit of a black hole, you really have nothing to fill that in but worry."

Wawzonek also shared some high-level details about the plan, including new screening for people entering the prison population and increased sanitation measures. 

They're also increasing programming to ensure social distancing is possible during those programs, by reducing the number of inmates attending at one time. 

Asked whether she thinks the plans are sufficient to protect inmates who will not be released, Wawzonek said she believes they are.

"Operational processes need to be kept internal and I don't think that that changes simply because we're in the context of a pandemic."