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Judge concerned coronavirus could spread in jails

John Woods / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>The Law Courts in Winnipeg.</p>


The Law Courts in Winnipeg.

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Quarantining new inmates for two weeks won’t be enough to halt the possible spread of COVID-19 in Manitoba jails, a judge said Monday before ordering the bail release of a man who has spent eight months in custody awaiting trial for a violent home invasion.

At a time when nursing homes are being "devastated" by the novel coronavirus, "the same outcome is likely should the virus take hold in any of our correctional institutions in this province," Queen’s Bench Justice Ken Champagne said during a bail review for 25-year-old Tyler Ballantyne of The Pas.

Ballantyne has been in custody since last August when he was arrested in connection to an armed home invasion that sent a 71-year-old The Pas woman and her two sons to hospital with serious injuries.

Champagne said the COVID-19 pandemic amounted to a "material change in circumstances" that should be given "significant weight" in determining whether Ballantyne should be released.

"I suspect next week or the week after that, bail reviews should perhaps give (the pandemic) even more weight, depending what happens in our (correctional) institutions," he said.

Last week, the province announced that all new admissions to Manitoba’s adult and youth correctional facilities would be funnelled through the Winnipeg Remand Centre, where accused offenders will be isolated for up to 14 days before being formally admitted or transferred to another facility.

Crown attorney Anostin Grieves opposed Ballantyne’s release Monday, arguing, in part, that the new quarantine measures would reduce the risk of Ballantyne or other prisoners contracting COVID-19.

The assumption that quarantined inmates who appear healthy are safe to transfer to other institutions "appears to be only a guess," Champagne said.

"My understanding is that inmates aren’t being tested and found to be negative when they are being sent from the Remand Centre to the other facilities… they are simply being sent if there are no symptoms disclosed after 14 days," Champagne said.

"That may or may not be good enough. But all of the information would suggest that people could be carrying the virus and be asymptomatic, which is a danger."

Manitoba Justice was asked if there are plans to test new inmates for the virus but did not receive a reply before deadline.

The virus has begun spreading to inmate populations across the country, with four inmates testing positive last week at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.,and another confirmed case at the Okanagan Correctional Centre in B.C.

Closer to home, six inmates at Stony Mountain Institution have been tested for the virus, with all results coming back negative, according to the most recent figures from Correctional Service Canada.

Correctional officers are just as likely as inmates to carry the virus into prisons and jails, Champagne said.

"Every one of the institutions in Manitoba have many, many correctional officers who come and go, day in and day out… and I’m sure they are under a strict protocol about not attending if they are ill, but the same reasoning applies," he said.

"Any correctional officer could be carrying that virus with them and not even know it, putting that whole institution at risk."

Dean Pritchard

Dean Pritchard

Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.

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