Nova Scotia jail population almost cut in half under COVID-19 measures
452 people in custody before mid-March, as of Tuesday there were 251
Nova Scotia's provincial jails have been emptied of almost half of their inmates as the justice system works to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
On March 18, the Justice Department announced it was taking extra steps to follow requests from Nova Scotia public health officials to limit the number of people coming in and out of the four provincial jails, and reduce those awaiting trial on remand.
As of Wednesday, as many as 180 people have been released from custody through bail agreements or temporary absences, according to the Department of Justice and the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service.
Before the releases, the Justice Department said there were 452 people in provincial custody. As of Tuesday night, the adult inmate population was down by nearly half, to 251. Jail populations typically fluctuate day-to-day, as new people are taken into custody and others finish sentences.
"There was a big push to reduce numbers as quickly as possible," said Chris Hansen, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service. "We're trying to maintain the public safety, and at the same time do our bit to protect public health."
The temporary absences were given to some people serving intermittent sentences (typically served only on weekdays, with weekends in the community, or vice versa) and individuals who were within 30 days of completing their sentence and not subject to a domestic violence sentence.
Others were released as a result of bail hearings, carried out with the help of electronics to allow lawyers and clients to do a lot of work virtually, Hansen said.
Crown lawyers initially looked at "several hundred files" to re-evaluate their original opposition to certain inmates being released on bail.
They made decisions based on the seriousness of the charges, facts of the cases, criminal history and the accused's release plan, including details like where they would live. Another piece was whether the accused could provide money or property that ensured they would follow conditions and return to court on their assigned date.
The Crown worked with defence lawyers on the various cases.
Chief Judge Pamela Williams of the provincial court held video bail reviews on the weekend of March 21-22 and again on Easter Monday so people could be quickly released, Jennifer Stairs, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Judiciary, wrote in an email.
Video bail hearings were also held during regular court hours over the past few weeks with provincial judges across the province.
Stairs said community organizations were also involved "to ensure housing and other supports were in place" for those people leaving jail.
On top of public safety, Hansen said the Crown is now considering public health on a "case-by-case basis" for bail applications.
"There were many Crowns working diligently on this over weeks and weekends and into the night, to feel comfortable with each case," Hansen said. "They were assured as they could be that this would present absolutely no public safety issue."
One inmate at the Burnside jail has been confirmed to have the virus, said Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang. The inmate has been in an isolated health-care cell since their admission to the facility to minimize contact with staff and other inmates.
Justice Department spokesperson Barbara MacLean said more personal protective equipment has been used since the pandemic began. She said inmates who require medical attention get the health services they need.
MacLean said the affected inmate is receiving the appropriate care and will remain in a health-care cell until cleared by health officials.
MacLean said their COVID-19 measures include enhanced cleaning, extra screening of staff and daily screening questions and check-ins with inmates and staff with resources to help people cope with the stress of the pandemic.
Threat of COVID-19 spread in jails
Sheila Wildeman, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and vice-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, said the reduced numbers of people in custody is a positive step.
The society had been calling for this move alongside other local organizations and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
There are many risks around COVID-19 spreading through jails, Wildeman said, including challenges around physical distancing, hygiene and how many inmates have underlying health issues making them more vulnerable to the virus.
Wildeman said the facilities are "porous" and any outbreak in a correctional centre could easily spread to staff and the wider community.
"The fact that Nova Scotia has responded, and in fact proven itself to be a leader among jurisdictions in this ... is a sign of strength," she said.
"It makes Nova Scotia, to my mind, stand among the world leaders in this."
In Ontario, the total inmate population across provincial jails fell from 8,344 to 6,025 from March 16 to April 9, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General.
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With files from Jean Laroche