Lack of jail space is creating backlog in courts, says judge

A bottleneck at the provincial jail due to COVID-19 is creating delays in putting convicted criminals behind bars, warns P.E.I.'s chief provincial judge.

With 'hundreds of cases' pending, province must isolate each new inmate upon arrival

The two provincial jail facilities are able to take in fewer new inmates at a time because of COVID-19 restrictions. (CBC News)

A shortage of space at the provincial jail due to COVID-19 is creating delays in putting convicted criminals behind bars, warns P.E.I.'s chief provincial judge.

"There's some individuals we adjourn the matter two, even three times, and each time telling them there's no guarantee I'll be able to deal with your case when you come back," said Chief Judge Nancy Orr.

"It's a question of how many cells will be available on that day."

It's become a hit-and-miss process, trying to send somebody to jail, according to Orr, with the Crown prosecutor contacting jail managers each morning to check on availability, then reporting to the judge in the court room.

Only 1 incoming inmate per cell for 7 days

Provincial officials told CBC News late Wednesday that the bed capacity for offenders at its two correctional facilities has not changed, but the ability to take in a surge of new inmates has been curbed.

"New admissions to custody have been limited by the availability of wet cells (with toilets/sinks) that are required for isolation," said the department of justice in an emailed statement to CBC News. 

The statement said the Chief Public Health Office "has given clear direction for the isolation of new admissions to custody facilities, requiring that all admissions be tested, 'stay in a single person cell' and be monitored for seven days then tested again before going into the general population."

It added: "While wet cells are being used for isolation these cells are also required for other reasons, including lockups and other inmate placements including safety, security, medical, psychological, suicide risk, etc."

Sentencing delayed

On Tuesday, Orr sentenced a Charlottetown man to 10 days in jail for impaired driving. He'd been sent home Monday because there was no room at the jail, and told to return the next day.

"There was only one bed available at the jail [Tuesday] and I was able to grab it at 9 a.m.," said Orr.

'We can only deal with one or two cases a day,' says Chief Provincial Court Judge Nancy Orr. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

When the pandemic restrictions hit P.E.I., criminal cases in court were temporarily put on hold, so the courts didn't hear most cases from March 16 to June 1.

"There's a backlog of the cases we weren't able to deal with and that's continuing to grow and we can only deal with maybe one or two people a day — or sometimes we can't deal with anybody," said Orr.

There are probably hundreds of cases pending, she said.

"We'll be able to do this in the short term," said Orr, "but all the indications from World Health [Organization] and our public health agencies indicate this is something we have to potentially face for the next year maybe even longer …Certainly we'll be in a situation where we'll be facing unreasonable delays and losing cases as a result."

Flow of inmates slower for months

The province's numbers show that on May 1 of this year, the Provincial Correctional Centre in Charlottetown held 61 offenders compared to 109 this week. Between March 30 and August 18, more than 190 people were either remanded or sentenced to custody and placed in isolation at the main centre or at the Prince Correctional Centre in Summerside. Over the same time, police lockups handled about 300 individuals.  

The courts have also stopped handing out weekend sentences, to reduce the risk of introducing the virus in the jail. Orr says that's making it harder for offenders to hold on to their jobs and, in some cases, look after their children. She said the shortage of jail space is making it harder for offenders to meet their "obligations to society."

"We are dealing with a lot of people who have mental health issues, who are very anxious when they do come to court. And it's just adding to that," she said.

'It's not short-term'

Orr wants the Department of Justice to consider ways to expand available spaces in the correctional system, perhaps using the youth centre in Summerside, and the existing jail cells in the holding facility attached to the courthouse in Summerside.

"One of the concerns is whether or not there's other facilities that they can make use of," said Orr. "It's not short-term."

The provincial statement said that temporary absences were approved in March and April to reduce the number of jail beds being occupied as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. 

"Early release through temporary absence was used in the early stages of the COVID shutdown to reduce numbers in the Adult Custody facilities and continues to be an option going forward," the statement said, along with more use of "electronic supervision for interim release." 

The statement said no youth facility spaces will be used for adult detention, and "there are no other custody facilities available. Correctional officials are continuing to explore safe and secure alternatives to deal with new admissions and the need for isolation."

More from CBC P.E.I.


About the Author

Brian Higgins


Brian Higgins shoots video and reports news on Prince Edward Island.


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