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When public-health officials list the conditions that create a high risk for a virus to proliferate, prisons tick all the boxes.
Overcrowding makes physical distancing often impossible. Hygiene supplies are meagre, and inmates do not routinely have access to anti-viral masks, gloves and sanitizing liquids and wipes. A disproportionately large percentage of inmates already have health problems due to poor nutrition and substance abuse.
Officials are aware such factors combine to make prisons fertile breeding grounds for the novel coronavirus, but Manitoba has so far fallen short of the changes needed to keep COVID-19 from endangering the 2,000 inmates in provincial institutions.
Stronger action is needed. Canada and Manitoba should immediately begin depopulating federal and provincial penal institutions by releasing low-risk and non-violent prisoners.
Among the modest measures introduced last Thursday, Manitoba transformed the Winnipeg Remand Centre into a quarantine station. Incoming inmates to both the adult and youth facilities are now channelled through the centre, isolating for up to 14 days before transfer to another facility.
Also, in an effort to avoid confining accused people who have been arrested and are awaiting their trials, access to bail hearings will be increased with lawyers now available on evenings and weekends. And defence lawyers are no longer allowed in-person visits with clients at the remand centre; instead, lawyers will now have to communicate via phone or video link.
Such changes will help in a small way, but they don’t directly address the central issue — that inmates and correctional staff are in spaces too crowded to allow for the physical distancing public-health officials say is essential.
The danger is to prisoners, certainly, but it’s also to institution staff and their families, as the workers can carry the virus to and from their workplaces.
Even people with no connection to penal institutions should be concerned: if institutions are inundated with clusters of COVID-19, a surge of ill prisoners could fill hospitals’ intensive-care beds and require high-demand equipment such as ventilators.
The prospect of depopulating correctional facilities likely alarms some people, who fear dangerous inmates will be set free in the community. But the most dangerous criminals should remain where they are; the inmates eligible for release should be those who are non-violent, and those who can serve their sentences in other ways.
Correctional-institution officials and parole board members have files on which offenders are low risk and, even before the threat of the virus, were heading for good-behaviour freedoms such as day parole or unescorted temporary absences. They should be first to receive get-out-of-jail-not-quite-free cards.
So far, the authorities in charge of penal institutions, including the Correctional Service of Canada, the Parole Board of Canada and Manitoba Justice, have not yet publicly answered the demands to depopulate prisons and jails so they are no longer potential hotspots for the virus to run riot.
While that is being considered, this might also be an opportune moment for Manitoba to engage in a bigger-picture review of its history of over-incarceration, and to reconsider the manner in which the application of stringent sentencing restrictions often leads to bail-condition and parole/probation re-arrests and imprisonment for violations that do not amount to criminal activity.
Yes, decreasing the prison population would be unprecedented, but minimizing the deadly impact of this pandemic will require the leaders of our correctional institutions to act outside of the comfort zone of precedents. Extreme threats call for innovative solutions.
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