Canadian civil liberties activists are urging the government to ensure jailed people are treated humanely in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, work the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) says it’s busy with.
Further, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association suggests releasing immigration detainees posing no public risk to the public as well as those who are elderly, sick, immuno-compromised, pregnant or those close to the end of their sentences.
“Canada must protect those who are often forgotten in a crisis: legally innocent people held in detention in our jails awaiting bail hearings or trials; immigration detainees who have committed no offence; and prisoners in our correctional facilities,” the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) said on a blog.
The association said the outbreak has potential to create chronic prison problems with crowded, close conditions heightening risk of infectious disease transmission.
Accordingly, the CCLA has urged federal, provincial and territorial officials to take steps to enhance safety of prisoner and correctional staff.
As of March 24, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in federal institutions, Correctional Service Canada spokesperson Christina Tricomi said.
The CCLA has made several recommendations:
• reduce prison populations through conditional or compassionate releases, compassionate releases to alleviate over-crowding and avoid the spread of infection;
• take guidance from public health professionals, science and respect constitutional rights;
• take humane measures to mitigate the clear danger that penal institutions can become high risk breeding grounds for virus outbreak, and;
• release emergency protocols to the public for transparency and accountability – and engage these protocols to increase healthcare staff, supplies, food and other provisions.
For detainees, the CCLA suggests corrections services:
• maintain safe, healthy and humane conditions of confinement for those that remain incarcerated;
• keep records about healthcare, measures taken to prevent infection, infection rates, supplies and provisions, lockdowns, segregation, other forms of isolation, and data about the individuals affected;
• Consider harms of isolation and people’s need for information;
• maintain programming and connect detainees and inmates with their loved ones through free phone calls and online chats to maintain individuals’ well-being and mental health now that visits in prisons have been suspended.
The CCLA has also made recommendations to police and prosecutors. Including:
• releasing those charged at scenes, consistent with the current law of bail, absent a severe, evidence-driven risk of flight for very serious charges;
• consenting to bail releases and seek detention as a last resort measure for instances of actual evidence of flight risk or very serious indictable offences;
• conducting timely, fair hearings using available technology, even telephones, for the purpose of granting release with minimal and flexible conditions, parole, probation, and other forms of release into the community; and
• encouraging the relaxing of unnecessarily strict application of evidence and procedural bars to facilitating the release of people.
CSC spokesperson Esther Mailhot said public safety is the CSC’s paramount concern. “We continue to balance public and health safety as we fulfill our legal obligations with respect to care, custody, release and supervision of offenders during this time. We are examining what options are available to us in collaboration with the Parole Board of Canada and what flexibilities there are to safely release offenders into the community,” Mailhot said.
“We have contingency plans in place in each operational units to respond to crisis situations and to deal with health emergencies,” Mailhot added.
She said the CSC is actively monitoring facilities.
“ We remain in close contact with public health authorities and are well positioned to make any further clinical or operational decisions necessary,” Mailhot said.
She said CSC is focusing on core operations with visits and temporary absences (except medical) cancelled.
Inmates can connect with family and friends via video visitation or phone, Mailhot said.
“Furthermore, employees are actively screening anyone that must enter institutions, Mailhot said. “CSC is also assessing any offenders exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Symptomatic individuals that meet public health criteria will be tested, provided with immediate clinical interventions as required, and CSC will contact local public health.”