Some inmates at NWT jails will be temporarily released in an effort to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 after over a dozen defence lawyers urged the territory’s department of justice to take immediate action to protect vulnerable prisoners.
Inmates with one month left remaining on their sentences who do not pose a public safety risk — and who have “appropriate support networks” post-release — will be granted temporary absences, stated Kim Schofield, Assistant Deputy Minister, Solicitor General, of the Department of Justice in a letter dated March 27.
On March 23, 15 NWT defence lawyers signed a letter calling on Corrections Service to grant temporary absences in the wake of COVID-19 “before it’s too late.”
The department says it will mull the temporary release of other low-risk inmates approaching the end of their sentences, too.
“In the coming days a similar review will be expanded to include inmates with less than three months remaining on their sentences,” wrote Schofield. The letter does not lay out a timeline of when that determination is expected to be made.
According to Schofield, the department is working alongside the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) — Canada’s prosecuting authority — the Courts and defence lawyers to reduce the number of people coming into Corrections Service-run facilities on remand.
People in remand custody are in jail awaiting trial. The bulk of all inmates in the territory’s three jails, located in Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith, are on remand.
“This work seeks to ensure that only people who are a risk to public safety are being remanded in our facilities,” wrote Schofield.
Schofield confirmed Corrections Service has granted temporary absences for all intermittent sentenced inmates — people who serve sentences on weekends. The move was requested in the letter sent by the 15 defence lawyers late last month.
The justice department also faced calls to identify all remanded prisoners who could be vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their age or underlying health conditions, to make sure they’ll be able to speak with legal counsel about seeking bail.
Schofield stated the justice department is “actively working with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to support the review of all remanded offenders currently in NWT correctional facilities to identify remanded accused who may be candidates for a judicial interim release.”
Schofield noted that the inmates identified through that process would have to “consent to taking such an approach and provide a reasonable bail plan in consultation with their legal counsel, but the ultimate approval for a judicial interim release would of course remain with the Court.”
The lawyers also called on Corrections Service to “immediately make each institution’s plan for prevention, testing, outbreak management, and treatment of COVID-19 public,” after the justice department had refused to do so. NNSL Media requested details on the jails’ contingency plans and was denied.
In a change of tone, the justice department now says “inmates, their families, and their advocates need to have confidence that the Corrections Service is taking every precaution possible to ensure the health and safety of individuals in their care in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Department of Justice will take the necessary steps to ensure that the information contained in this letter is made publicly available by posting this letter on the Departmental website along with the recently added Questions and Answers document,” wrote Schofield.
What’s being done at NWT jails to keep inmates and staff safe amid COVID-19?
Currently, Schofield said inmate populations at each facility allows for one inmate per cell.
In her letter, Schofield outlines health and safety measures being taken at Yellowknife’s North Slave Correctional Complex, South Mackenzie Correctional Centre in Hay River and the Fort Smith Correctional Complex — steps she said build on already-in-place plans to confront the spread of infectious diseases in correctional facilities.
For one, the department says health safety messaging is being hammered home at a heightened scale: social distancing is being promoted, and the importance of hand washing and limiting contact with surfaces is being encouraged at a heightened level.
Screening has also seen some significant changes, said Schofield.
Inmates entering the facility are now met with a questionnaire, and if an “inmate is symptomatic they will be isolated from other inmates and health staff will contact Public Health to arrange testing,” stated Schofield.
Inmates will not be allowed to enter jails’ general populations unless they’ve been medically cleared to do so.
“If a situation occurs where an inmate is showing new symptoms, the Corrections Service will hold the inmate exhibiting symptoms in separate areas away from the general population,” according to the department.
Added measures include having the inmate wear a protective face mask while requiring staff to wear gloves, masks, gowns and protective glasses.
According to Schofield’s letter, “each facility has sufficient supplies available to meet both inmate and staff personal protective equipment requirements.”
Peter Harte, one of the defence lawyers who called for action to protect inmates in late March, said he’s happy with the move from the Corrections Service.
“I’m thrilled they’re minimizing the extent to which there’s a vulnerable population at risk of exposure to COVID-19,” said Harte. A client of Harte’s was approached by a caseworker at NSCC to see if he could be released earlier, an indication that NWT jails are making efforts to minimize harm, said Harte.
“So as far as I can tell everybody is making good faith efforts to get everybody out of custody where there’s a reasonable basis to do so,” he said, including the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. In his talks with the Crown counsel, Harte said he understands the PPSC is currently identifying inmates who can have their remand status revisited in an effort to reduce numbers in NWT jails amid COVID-19.
“It’s easy to say ‘this person is a criminal, lock him up, too bad, so sad.” But (Corrections Service and the PPSC) appear to have the inmates’ interests genuinely at the forefront with this. So I was encouraged it got dealt with on that basis that quickly,” said Harte.
‘We’re looking at every file’
Chief federal prosecutor Alex Godfrey said the PPSC began reviewing files of inmates on remand about two weeks ago, before the letter was sent to the Department of Justice, in an effort to mitigate risks by potentially reducing the number of low-risk inmates at NWT jails in the wake of COVID-19, while balancing the need to keep the public safe.
Prosecutors worked with defence lawyers to agree on case resolutions and to develop release plans for some inmates, but not all were eligible, said Godfrey.
“But we are, of course, prepared to look at those matters again should defence counsel wish to bring anybody forward to our attention,” he told NNSL Media.
Some for prisoners, whether sentenced or on remand, temporarily release is simply not on the table: they’re either serving time for, or accused of, serious offences including murder, manslaughter and sexual assault, said Godfrey.
Nevertheless, PPSC continues to work with Corrections Service, RCMP and defence lawyers to find solutions for inmates who are eligible for release, he said.
“We’re certainly looking at every file, making sure we’re protecting the public while making sure the accused person’s health is also protected as well,” said Godfrey.
“Everybody in the justice system is uniquely concerned with respect to accused persons’ in the NWT and making sure that things are done properly. When everyone works in one direction it’s certainly helpful but I would really applaud the efforts of Corrections Service, RCMP, defence counsel and the Courts,” added Godfrey.