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Consider releasing some inmates to stem COVID-19 in prisons, minister requests

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has asked the federal prison service and the parole board to look at early release for some offenders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

The government is committed to protecting inmates, correctional staff and the public given the unique risks the virus poses for prisons, said Mary-Liz Power, a spokeswoman for the minister.

"This pandemic continues to evolve and we have been clear that our response will as well," she said Tuesday in a statement.

"Minister Blair has asked both the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada and the chair of the Parole Board of Canada to determine whether there are measures that could be taken to facilitate early release for certain offenders."

The Correctional Service is working closely with the Parole Board "to examine all options with respect to the safe release of offenders into the community," said Martine Rondeau, a spokeswoman for the prison service.

Under the law, decisions on the conditional release of inmates lie with the Parole Board, she noted.

The Correctional Service is conducting an analysis of the offender population to be in a position to make evidence-based recommendations, Rondeau added.

The Parole Board welcomed the minister's direction and said it was working closely with officials from the Correctional Service and Public Safety "to ensure a broad number of options are considered to safely release offenders into the community in response to the COVID-19 situation."

Spokeswoman Iulia Pescarus Popa added that the board continues to review parole applications from offenders based on the specific circumstances of each case.

The prison service said Monday two inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 at Port-Cartier Institution, a maximum-security facility in Quebec — the first confirmed cases involving prisoners in a federal institution.

The service said nine employees at Port-Cartier had also tested positive for the virus.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which represents employees in 49 federal institutions, says the release of a few inmates would not stem the spread of COVID-19 in prison but would increase the risk for Canadians.

"The focus must be on changing routines in our institutions to respect social distancing and self-isolation directives to every extent possible," the union said.

"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."

The Canadian Bar Association has previously raised concerns about inadequate levels of health care in federal institutions, including crowded immigration-detention facilities, the respective chairs of the association's criminal law and immigration law sections said in a letter to Blair this week. They added that health-care demands are likely to increase with an aging prison population.

"Coupled with the close quarters in these facilities, limited access to hygiene and preventive products, and inability to act on social-distancing recommendations from public health authorities, we believe the current situation may soon become dire," they wrote.

With the emerging health threat, it is important to look at releasing those who can be safely let out of prisons and immigration-detention facilities, the letter said.

One option is to consider those on remand or sentenced for non-violent crimes for early release, it said. Other possibilities include expanding use of conditional pardons under the Criminal Code, accelerating the parole process, and relaxing requirements for temporary absences and intermittent sentences.

"These approaches must be co-ordinated, with consistent policies between federal, provincial and territorial institutions."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2020.

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