Advocates call for temporary release of some inmates amid COVID-19 pandemic
Advocates say it's especially challenging to practice social distancing in jails
Advocates are calling for the temporary release of some inmates to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia's jails.
East Coast Prison Justice Society and four other advocacy groups sent a letter with the request to the provincial ministers for health and justice, and senior administrators for the provincial correctional service and health authority.
"We worry that there will be significant numbers of deaths in corrections settings with the COVID-19 virus and that many of these deaths will have been preventable," Sheila Wildeman, co-chair of East Coast Prison Justice Society, told CBC's Information Morning.
The letter, dated Sunday, calls for the province to grant temporary absences to all inmates on intermittent sentences, which are typically served only on weekdays, with weekends in the community, or vice versa.
The advocates are also asking for the release of inmates at heightened risk for complications from the coronavirus, and mothers and other primary support parents.
They also call for the province to:
- Minimize the use of health segregation cells.
- Ensure risk mitigation strategies "do not unduly restrict prisoners' liberties," including "avoiding reliance on prolonged or indeterminate lockdowns/solitary confinement."
- Ensure inmates have regular access to phone communications with lawyers and family.
- Ensure inmates have regular access to programming and other activities and possibly reinstating volunteer access, with necessary modifications.
- Meet public health standards, including by increasing sanitation measures and ensuring inmate access to hygiene and sanitation products at no cost.
Difficult to distance in jail
Wildeman, who is an associate professor of law at Dalhousie University, said jails face unique challenges with the coronavirus pandemic.
Public health officials in Nova Scotia have recommended cancelling or avoiding any gatherings of 150 people or more.
Wildeman said, "that's what a jail is."
"Moreover, in jail people can't adopt social distancing the way that people outside in the community can."
Wildeman said water is sometimes turned off at jails to facilitate searches, and soap and paper towel shortages are "not uncommon," making good hygiene — which Canadian health officials have repeatedly touted as an important tool in mitigating viral spread — challenging.
"All those problems are likely to get worse," Wildeman said, pointing to staff shortages due to illness or isolation as a potentially aggravating factor.
A 'public health priority'
Wildeman said creating a mitigation strategy for Nova Scotia jails should be "a public health priority."
"These are prisoners who are going to be coming back to their communities. And those tend to be the most marginalized communities. They're vectors for spread of the illness."
The Nova Scotia Department of Justice started instituting anti-coronavirus measures in the corrections system last week. As of Sunday, all visits to jails were called off, and inmates are being offered extra phone calls.
In their letter, the advocates said they intend to make an additional set of demands related to the court system, with the aim of preventing new admissions to jails and reducing the number of incarcerated people.
'A concern' for the premier
On Monday, Premier Stephen McNeil told CBC's Information Morning the spread of COVID-19 among inmates was "obviously a concern."
"Any time you have institutions of any kind that have a large population, we have to do what we can to try to mitigate the virus from going in there."
He said there would be "some ongoing analysis" of the handling of intermittent inmates.
As of Monday afternoon, Nova Scotia has one confirmed and four presumed cases of COVID-19. The number of cases globally was approaching 170,000 and the number of deaths had surpassed 6,600.
With files from Information Morning