The province is introducing new measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Manitoba’s jails, including using the Winnipeg Remand Centre as a quarantine station.
Beginning Thursday, all new admissions to the province’s adult and youth correctional facilities will be funnelled through the centre, where accused offenders will be isolated for up to 14 days before being formally admitted or transferred to another facility.
Approximately 2,000 inmates are being housed at the province’s six adult correctional facilities, with beds available for another 500, a Manitoba Justice spokesperson said Wednesday.
"We have created capacity at Winnipeg Remand Centre to ensure we can safely handle all people admitted into custody," the spokesperson said.
Defence lawyers, meanwhile, will no longer be allowed in-person visits with clients at the remand centre; instead, lawyers will now have to communicate via phone or video link.
"My understanding is that there were very few defence counsel who were continuing to attend the remand centre, because of health concerns," said Gerri Wiebe, president of the Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba. "For the last couple of weeks now, we have been working with Corrections to expand access to our clients."
While the video equipment is still in the process of being installed, the remand centre now has several additional phone lines to accommodate discussions between lawyers and clients, Wiebe said.
"We phone there and set up an appointment, and are given a set time, and then they bring the client down to a phone booth, as I understand it," Wiebe said.
Access to bail hearings will be increased on evenings and weekends, with Crown attorneys available day and night to work with defence counsel on bails and sentencing recommendations, the province said in its Wednesday media bulletin.
In the North, the number of court hearings that can be held by teleconference will be increased to avoid unnecessary travel.
Wiebe said she’s been told those in police custody will soon be allowed to apply for bail by telephone from the station.
"Processes to address that are being put in place as we speak," she said. "My understanding is the plan is to have telephone appearances either to bail court or before a justice of the peace, where release conditions can be worked out."
The speed with which changes are being made to the justice system is "unbelievable," Wiebe said.
"Everything is happening at a much greater pace than our system is used to dealing with. There isn’t a lot of formal memos going out — it’s a lot of, ‘Can we do this? Can we do that?’ It's different parties getting together to make the system as efficient and effective as we can," she said.
Last month, Manitoba’s three levels of court announced the adjournment of most out-of-custody matters for at least a month, effectively limiting court proceedings to bails and in-custody sentencings and remands.
On Monday, a spokesman for federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair confirmed he has asked the heads of the Correctional Service of Canada and the Parole Board of Canada what options are available for releasing some prison inmates early.
On the provincial level, prosecutors are reviewing case files to determine which offenders can safely be released.
"We are reviewing every single file of everybody who is currently in custody," said one Crown attorney, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We have public health issues that we are now looking at, so I think we’re working with an eye to make sure everybody who is in is in to protect the public," the prosecutor said. "If they are supposed to be in, we are still saying they should be, but if we can release them, we are."
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