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This article was published 20/3/2020 (214 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In a move to reduce the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus within its jails, Manitoba is suspending sentences for people who have been serving time on weekends.
The justice department confirmed the decision in response to a Free Press inquiry, saying correctional staff are also assessing new admissions to provincial jails based on public-health warnings.
A department spokesperson didn't respond Friday to questions about how many inmates could be released due to COVID-19 concerns. The statement said the province already has the ability to review release dates for all inmates and does so considering risks to public safety.
"All inmates who are released would have a release plan completed with their correctional case manager to ensure there are appropriate supports in place. These cases will be reviewed carefully with quality release planning for each inmate under consideration. We have suspended intermittent sentences to reduce the risks and the number of people entering correctional facilities," the Manitoba Justice statement reads, in part.
Ontario and Nova Scotia have already announced intermittent sentences would be suspended in those provinces.
Intermittent sentences allow inmates to work during the week and typically serve their time incrementally on weekends. They're only imposed in cases where the jail sentence is three months or shorter.
A spokesperson for Manitoba Justice couldn't say how many people are currently serving intermittent sentences.
Provincial jails are still staffed by correctional officers and are still allowing visitors, with no physical contact between them and inmates. The jails have increased cleaning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and have plans in place to isolate individuals when required, the department said.
A spokesperson didn't answer an inquiry about whether any correctional centre inmate or staff member has been tested for COVID-19.
"The health and safety of our staff and people in our custody is our primary consideration. We are also assessing the situation and will continue to adjust our operations and response should the situation change. In the meantime, we continue to take direction from our medical and public health experts," the statement said.
Prisoners advocates have been calling on levels of government across Canada to release low-risk inmates to reduce risks of contracting the virus. The Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada issued an open letter this week, calling for prisoner populations to be immediately reduced. Several local groups, including Bar None Winnipeg and Millennium for All, co-signed the letter.
Gerri Wiebe, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba, said she was in favour of the move to suspend intermittent sentences. She said other decisions to release inmates should be made in the public interest.
"If people are a danger to society, then they have to be detained in spite of the risks, I suppose, but I would expect that there are a lot of people in custody for matters that do not make them a danger to society," Wiebe said.
"The reality is that our correctional institutions are already, for the most part, at or over capacity on a regular basis, and even at capacity, inmates are in very close quarters," she said. "The ability to quarantine or socially distance or appropriately separate is very, very limited."
Meanwhile, local defence lawyers have been advised not to enter the Winnipeg Remand Centre for their own health and safety, if they don't have information about the health of the person they're visiting.
Wiebe said correctional staff are providing increased telephone access, so inmates can speak to their lawyers, and lawyers are still appearing in bail court to talk to their clients via video while most court sittings are postponed.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
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