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Whitehorse jail suspends visits, cuts some programming to reduce risk of COVID-19

The Whitehorse Correctional Centre has suspended personal visit to inmates and cut back some of its programming as part of its measures to reduce the risk of transferring the coronavirus in or out of the jail. 

Personal visits suspended at jail, all court hearings taking place by video

The Whitehorse Correctional Centre had 45 inmates in custody as of Mar. 24, but has capacity for 193. Being under capacity allows all inmates to have their own sleeping quarters. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

The Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) has suspended personal visits to inmates and cut back some of its programming as part of its measures to reduce the risk of transferring the coronavirus in or out of the jail. 

"We're really working diligently towards preparedness," said Andrea Monteiro, director of corrections with the Yukon government. 

She said no inmates have been tested for COVID-19, nor are any isolated due to concerns about the virus. She said there are facilities available if any inmates are require isolation. 

Phone calls replace in-person visits

As of Tuesday this week, inmates were no longer allowed visits from friends and family. Instead, they are allowed two free phone calls per day. Visits from lawyers, counsellors, ​and probation officers are still permitted, but will take place from opposite sites of a physical barrier. 

Programming for inmates is reduced because all programs offered by external contractors have been suspended, but Monteiro said programs provided by correctional officers will continue. 

"We're also making sure that programming specific to Indigenous culture and training is still being facilitated by our First Nation liaison officer," she said.

Inmates have own cells

Monteiro said WCC is better set up for social distancing than correctional facilities elsewhere in the country because WCC is under-capacity: there are 45 inmates in a facility built to house 193 people, which allows all inmates to have their own sleeping quarters. 

"So we aren't double-bunking or  — what's occurring in other jurisdictions — triple-bunking our inmates," said Monteiro.

Monteiro said because corrections staff are considered essential service workers, they have been told they are not allowed to attend any social gatherings, even those with fewer than 10 people. 

Monteiro said no changes have been made regarding meal times, but that could change. Meanwhile, she said WCC is stepping up the cleaning of heavy-use areas. She said the facility has its own supply of personal protective equipment such as hand sanitizer and doesn't expect to have shortages. 

Court hearings by video conference

All in-custody court appearances in the territory are taking place by video conferencing. Yukon territorial courts are also postponing intermittent sentencing "barring exceptional circumstances." Monteiro said that will minimize the number of people from Yukon communities entering and leaving the jail. 

"We're working very closely with the courts and the RCMP ... to ensure that only the people who are required to be incarcerated are held at WCC." 

Of the 45 inmates now at WCC, Yukon Justice said nine are sentenced offenders and the remaining 36 are individuals held on remand, awaiting awaiting a court disposition or sentencing.

Letter from NWT lawyers calls for measures to protect the vulnerable

A letter sent to three correctional facilities in the N.W.T. from 15 defence lawyers called for a number of changes to protect inmates from "rapid transmission" of the coronavirus. 

Patricia Randell, director of policy and communications with Yukon's Department of Justice, noted in an email to CBC that WCC is in a different situation than other correctional facilities, because it is under-capacity. 

However, she said WCC is reviewing the personal circumstances of inmates and people on remand who might be more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age or health factors, "to ensure they are housed in the most appropriate place, should there be a pandemic issue within the correctional centre."

Randell said the correctional centre is constantly reviewing individual cases to see if they could be housed in the community for reintegration or rehabilitation purposes without compromising public safety.

She said for some, stable housing is not a reality. 

"For particularly vulnerable individuals, having a safe place to isolate with access to services and supports within the Whitehorse Correctional Centre may provide for better health outcomes than if they were proactively released without a stable residence or ability to self isolate," Randell wrote.

"As the situation with COVID-19 evolves, Yukon Corrections will continue to monitor the most appropriate placement for each inmate based on an individualized approach." 

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