Petition presented at Sask. legislature calls for corrections minister's removal

Some 1,700 people signed a petition calling for Minister of Corrections and Policing Christine Tell to resign over the government's handling of COVID-19 outbreaks inside Saskatchewan correctional centres.

Safety of men, women and youth inside correctional facilities is always top of mind, says minister

NDP Justice Critic Nicole Sarauer and Soolee Dinah Papequash spoke outside the legilsature building in Regina before Papequash submitted her petition calling for Minister Christine Tell to resign on Friday. (Kirk Fraser/CBC News)

A petition calling for Saskatchewan's Minister of Corrections and Policing Christine Tell to resign over the government's handling of COVID-19 outbreaks inside Saskatchewan correctional centres was delivered to the legislature Friday.

It's a call the Official Opposition and inmates inside correctional centres started making about two weeks ago. Now more than 1,700 people and 40 organizations from across Canada are calling for the same in a petition presented by Soolee Dinah Papequash. 

Papequash said the province's response to COVID-19 outbreaks inside the facilities made her very angry.

"But my anger wouldn't get anywhere," she said. "We stepped forward and decided to be as loud as we can."

Papequash called for Tell's immediate resignation and gave the ministry five recommendations for immediate changes. 

The recommendations include a government apology for the way the outbreaks were handled, a release of as many prisoners as possible — including those on remand or are nearing release — and adequate supports for those released.

She also called for immediate and ongoing investment in communities rather than jails, with an overall goal of moving beyond the current penal system.

Papequash says her concerns stem from conversations with her grandson, who's inside a provincial facility, and others inside she speaks with on a daily basis. (Kirk Fraser/CBC News)

She said inmates' mental health is not good, based on her conversations with her grandson and other people inside the Regina and Saskatoon jails. 

"I haven't heard from my grandson in over two-and-a-half weeks," Papequash said. 

"Then he called the other night and he didn't sound good. It's not due to the COVID, it's due to his mental health. It's not only him I receive calls from daily." 

She said she understood her recommendations may not be able to be implemented immediately, but she asked for the government to start the process now.

NDP justice critic Nicole Sarauer, who first called for Tell's resignation about two weeks ago, said Papequash's situation is just one of many.

"Soolee took a lot of courage to come to the steps of the legislature today to come to [Tell's] office, to speak with Minister Tell," Sarauer said. 

"If the minister isn't willing to do her job, and we've seen multiple occasions now… then she needs to step down, she needs to resign." 

In a prepared statement, Tell said the health and safety of the men, women and youth inside facilities was "always top of mind."

But Tell said she was concerned some inmates are trying to use COVID-19 as a "get out of jail free card."

"It would be a disservice to victims and a breach of my duty to maintain public safety to grant leave to inmates who would not otherwise meet the stringent public safety criteria in place for early release," the statement said. 

Tell's statement said the government implemented COVID-19 measures recommended by the provincial health authority and outlined some changes made to accommodate inmate concerns. 

She said inmates have an additional 10 minutes for phone calls, masks, soap and cleaning supplies are provided free of charge, and controlled access was granted to hand sanitizer. 

The statement said the ministry would continue to manage COVID-19 outbreaks with both the public and inmates' safety in mind and that after the COVID-19 outbreak at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, which infected 150 inmates, there were only a "handful" of cases remaining there thanks to the work of both inmates and staff.

"We are managing the current outbreak at the Regina Correctional Centre with this same level of attention to health and safety," Tell's statement said.

"I have full confidence in our front-line correctional staff."