Prisons watchdog in the dark on inmate early release plan to limit spread of COVID-19

Canada’s prison watchdog says he has not managed to obtain any details on how many federal prisoners have been released early to limit the transmission of COVID-19, but progress appears to be slow.

Advocates warn that overcrowded, confined conditions are putting inmates, communities at risk

Corrections Services Canada says the Mission Insitutions is on lockdown as more inmates are tested positive for Covid-19. Photo is of Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont.
Prisoners' advocates have been calling for the release of low-risk inmates to limit the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

Canada's prison watchdog says he has been unable to get information on how many federal prisoners have been released early to limit the transmission of COVID-19, as warnings about a potential rise in cases behind bars grow louder.

Despite repeated requests for numbers from Correctional Service Canada (CSC), Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger told CBC News he has gleaned only anecdotal information about two pregnant women and another inmate with cancer who have been released due to the pandemic.

"So far I have not received any data showing how many, above the normal in and out, are coming out," he said.

Data on admissions, releases and in-custody population Zinger received for November 2019 through March 2020 appear to have only "normal fluctuations," he said.

Three weeks ago, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair instructed the heads of Canada's prison and parole systems to look at thinning out penitentiaries through the early release of some low-risk offenders.

On Monday, Blair created some confusion around the progress made to date. Asked how many prisoners had been released since the pandemic, he said that "literally hundreds" had been released and that 600 requests were being considered.

His spokesperson later clarified that Blair was referring to the release of offenders who already were scheduled to leave prison through parole, or whose sentences were ending.

His office said it could not provide a specific number on how many have been released due to the pandemic.

Response will 'evolve' with pandemic

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) has streamlined a number of its policies and processes in response to an increase of parole review submissions, and to assist the CSC and community partners," reads a statement from Blair's office Tuesday.

"As this pandemic continues to evolve, we have been clear that our response will as well."

The statement goes on to repeat a line from March 31 — that the minister has asked the CSC commissioner and PBC chair to "determine whether there are measures that could be taken to facilitate safe release for certain offenders."

Correctional Investigator of Canada Ivan Zinger has been asking for details on the number of prisoners released early due to COVID-19, but has not been able to get numbers. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Late Tuesday evening, CSC responded to a set of questions from CBC, but did not say how many prisoners have been released early related to COVID-19. It only said that, on average, there are 600 offenders released each month and that in March 2020 there were 636 released from custody.

Spokesperson Martine Rondeau said nine offenders are now hospitalized with COVID-19 — four in Quebec and five in the Pacific region.

She said various hygiene measures are in place to prevent the spread of the virus, including cleaning, disinfecting and waste disposal processes, and that CSC is working with public health officials to conduct contact tracing.

CSC is also preparing prisoners to be safely released into the community, she said.

"We are working closely with the Parole Board of Canada with respect to the safe release of offenders into the community," Rondeau said.

"We are currently conducting an analysis of the offender population to be in a position to make evidence-based recommendations."

Prisoners' advocates have been warning for several weeks that tightly confined and crowded institutional environments can fuel fast-moving outbreaks. Many inmates are at heightened risk of experiencing severe and potentially deadly effects from COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions or age.

As of the last official count Monday, 186 prisoners have tested positive: 114 in Quebec, 64 in British Columbia and eight in Ontario. One male prisoner died at B.C.'s Mission Institution due to COVID-19.

One-third of inmates tested are positive

Out of the prison population, 546 inmates have been tested — meaning about a third of those tested have been confirmed positive.

There are about 14,000 people incarcerated in federal penitentiaries. Many of them have chronic diseases, disabilities or dementia, or are terminally ill.

Advocates say allowing a certain number of prisoners out early would make it safer for the remaining inmates and staff because it would be easier to practise physical distancing.

Information on how many have actually been released is "tightly held," said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.

She said she has information about a few people being processed for early release who were told a decision could take 30 to 45 days.

Focus on older, non-violent prisoners?

Latimer said the criteria determining who is eligible for early release have not been made available to her, but she has heard "rumours" that the focus would be on inmates older than age 65 who are non-violent and near the end of their sentences.

Latimer said some of her worst fears about the impact of the pandemic on the prison population are now being realized, despite warnings from medical experts that closed institutions like prisons have an "amplifying effect" on the spread of the virus that can overwhelm the capacity of local health care facilities.

"My view is that the federal government has been far too slow to act. The federal prison system is in a major COVID-19 crisis with serious outbreaks in some prisons. Much, much more needs to be done," she said.

Latimer said many countries followed the advice of health officials and international human rights advocates and reduced the prison population to curb the spread of COVID-19.

'Reckless and dangerous'

University of Ottawa criminologist Justin Piché has been carefully tracking infections throughout the pandemic and trying to sound the alarm.

"The federal penitentiary system and Minister Blair need to do much more to prevent the spread of COVID-19 behind and beyond bars. Further delays on releasing thousands of prisoners that they safely could at the moment is reckless and dangerous to public health in the short-term, and public safety in the long-term," he said.

Zinger acknowledged that while de-populating prisons would help limit transmission of the virus, it's "very challenging" to do so safely. Some released inmates would be destined for halfway houses, so ensuring someone doesn't bring the virus into the new environment would be critical.

The national union representing federal correctional officers has strongly opposed any release strategy, saying it would demonstrate a "complete disregard for public safety."

"The focus must be on changing routines in our institutions to respect social distancing and self-isolation practices to every extent possible. Canada is in crisis, and its citizens are already dealing with a potentially deadly threat. It is irresponsible to introduce further threats into our communities," reads a statement issued by the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO) last month.

Union officials will be appearing at the House of Commons health committee later this afternoon.

Dozens of correctional officers also have tested positive for COVID-19.

Conservative public safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus said anyone serving time in a federal penitentiary is "serving serious time for a serious crime."

"Canadians deserve better than a prime minister and a government that prioritizes the rights of criminals over the rights of victims. Conservatives have been clear, the government must ensure that correctional officers have the proper training and equipment they need to safely do their jobs and keep Canadians safe," he said in a statement.

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