Friday saw the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, a national organization with headquarters in Ottawa, join the chorus calling for low-risk inmates in custody in the three jails in the Northwest Territories to be released on compassionate grounds with an eye to avoiding spreading the coronavirus within.

There are many inmates with pre-existing health conditions, and a vast majority of them are Indigenous – 83 per cent overall. In the case of the women’s jail in Fort Smith, all 10 inmates identified as Indigenous when we ran a story on over-representation in NWT jails at the end of January.

The incarcerated population in the NWT is completely unable to adhere to social distancing protocols aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 in the general population. This puts everybody in the territory at risk.
NNSL file photo

“The lives of detainees and the safety of the general public are endangered by unnecessarily keeping anyone in confined living spaces where they cannot avoid infection,” Kim Beudin, the organization’s national vice chief, wrote in an open letter to Premier Caroline Cochrane. “Cases of coronavirus have already been detected in institutions in multiple provinces, and overcrowding conditions threaten to create a breeding ground for the virus.”

She added that reports from “various” provincial correctional centres indicate the presence of black mold, a lack of proper medication and medical care.

Related coverage:

Lawyers urge NWT jails to temporarily release inmates ‘before it’s too late’

COVID-19: NWT jails cut most visits, boost health safety measures 

The Northwest Territories is far from alone in being asked to release inmates. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced a number of questions about releasing low-risk inmates across the country.

Overcrowding and safety concerns at NSCC in particular are well-documented. Before the Conservatives clamped down, judges were granting offenders up to three days’ credit for every day served for that exact reason.

These prisoner advocates are not promoting the release of murderers and rapists, and neither is News/North. This is about getting non-violent, elderly and infirm prisoners out of overcrowded jails that could quickly go epidemic. Guards and other employees are then put at risk, which in turn raises the chances of them infecting members of the general public when they leave work and go on with their lives.

Most of the inmates in NWT jails are on remand awaiting trial, meaning they haven’t even been convicted of a crime, or they are serving time for what could be described as procedural infractions like missing court dates or falling off the wagon while under orders to abstain from alcohol and drugs.

Beaudin raises another level of concern, that being that while incarcerated, Indigenous inmates have their treaty and Section 35 rights stripped away.

A state of emergency has been declared for the NWT and it must apply to its incarcerated population, too. For this and other reasons, Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek’s update on her department’s plan to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection in NWT jails last week was welcome.

She said from now on there will be only one inmate housed in each cell (noting none of the NWT jails are at or near capacity, so this is possible). Visitation had already been limited to the essential, including meetings with lawyers, and social distancing protocols have been put in place.

Corrections officers are also apparently being equipped with safety equipment, gloves at a minimum, and more if an inmate is symptomatic.

Details on the plan to release non-violent inmates are being kept secret, but what information has been posted online represents an encouraging made-in-the-North solution to an acute and urgent problem.

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