Nine inmates across the territory have been released temporarily in an effort to reduce Covid-19 risks at NWT jails, according to the Department of Justice.
Citing “privacy reasons,” the department won’t specify how many inmates have been released from each facility.
There are three jails in the NWT: Yellowknife’s North Slave Correctional Complex (NSCC), Hay River’s South Mackenzie Correctional Centre and the Fort Smith Correctional Complex.
Kim Schofield, solicitor general and assistant deputy minister, told NNSL Media Monday that each jail has seen at least one inmate released on a temporary absence.
Temporary absences for inmates can be approved for a number of reasons, from a death in the family to medical appointments.
In late March, the justice department, mirroring moves made by jurisdictions across Canada and around the globe, revealed that it would be releasing some low-risk inmates with one month or less left remaining on their sentences in an effort to reduce NWT jails’ populations amid Covid-19 concerns.
According to Schofield, the nine temporary absences, in concert with additional efforts made alongside the RCMP and the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) to reduce the overall population of inmates, has resulted in a 22 per cent drop in prisoner numbers between mid-March and April 20.
“A combination of factors including temporary absences, bail releases and a reduction of new admissions to custody or remands have contributed to the reduction in inmate counts across all adult facilities,” stated Schofield.
The approach in the wake of Covid-19 means the department and its partners are taking a closer look who’s coming into NWT jails — only people who “pose the most risk to public safety,” are being remanded at this time.
Inmates in remand custody are awaiting trial. Remanded inmates make up the bulk of the prisoner population across all NWT jails.
Last month, more than a dozen defence lawyers signed a letter urging the justice department to grant temporary absences “before it’s too late.” With inmates living in close quarters, lawyers said physical distancing isn’t always an option. They expressed concern that if Covid-19 makes its way into an NWT jail, inmates would be vulnerable to the virus.
That same misgiving was articulated at a bail hearing that brought the issue into focus last week. A convicted Yellowknife drug trafficker sought bail over Covid-19 concerns. He testified it’s next to impossible to practise physical distancing at NSCC, especially because some inmates weren’t following directives from staff.
The Department of Justice has said health safety measures — from enhanced inmate screening to bolstered sanitation practices — have been beefed up at the territory’s Corrections Service-run jails.
What’s being done to protect inmates and staff alike at NWT jails again fell under the microscope this week, according to CBC North. The broadcaster reported that during a bail hearing for Colten McNeely, a Fort Good Hope man convicted of manslaughter, a Supreme Court judge questioned why testing, along with additional measures, like taking inmates’ temperatures, aren’t being introduced at NWT jails. McNeely, who was reportedly seeking release over concerns related to his asthma, was ultimately denied bail.
In Schofield’s March 27 statement announcing the decision to release some low-risk inmates, she said the department, “in the coming days,” would also be looking at granting temporary absences for individuals with less than three months left to serve.
Asked whether that’s happening — or if it will happen — Schofield said on Monday that the review process for those inmates is “ongoing.”
“(The review) will be continuing as other inmates come closer to the end of their sentences,” stated Schofield. “At all times, factors that are considered include: completion of a certain portion of their sentence, the risk level of the individual — including their risk to reoffend — completion of institutional programming, and their release plans including supports and living arrangements, among other factors.”