OTTAWA — Federal agencies are facing mounting pressure to come clean on how many inmates, if any, they’ve released as a result of COVID-19.

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OTTAWA — Federal agencies are facing mounting pressure to come clean on how many inmates, if any, they’ve released as a result of COVID-19.

"We're not getting answers; we’re getting the wool pulled over our eyes here," Manitoba Senator Don Plett said Monday.

About a month ago, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair asked the Correctional Service of Canada and the Parole Board to speed up hearings for releasing offenders.

But both agencies have so far evaded specifying how many inmates, if any, they've let out either directly due to COVID-19 or with the coronavirus as a contributing factor.

A week ago, Blair told the Free Press that "literally hundreds of people have, in fact, been placed back into the community," but his office later told reporters this includes anyone already slated for release.

In a Saturday briefing for parliamentarians, the agencies said they release about 600 inmates in the average month, and said that 295 inmates had gotten parole or statutory release between April 1 and 17.

That means fewer inmates than normal were being released. Plett said that contradiction means Blair or the two agencies are deceiving Parliament. "Somebody’s misleading somebody," said Plett, a Conservative.

There have been no COVID-19 cases at Stony Mountain Institution, but fast-spreading outbreaks have occurred at other federal prisons.

In order to avoid strain on Winnipeg’s hospital capacity, Plett said some lower-risk Stony inmates should be put on farms or into monitored house arrest, to create more space in what is now the federal system’s largest institution.

Plett said both prison-rights advocates and tough-on-crime groups have a right to know whether federal offenders are being released, echoing comments from other senators and the independent Correctional Investigator.

Neither Blair’s office nor either agency would make anyone available Monday afternoon for an interview.

Instead, Blair’s office said the 13,900 current federal inmates is about 275 fewer than the start of March, due in part to provinces diverting offenders into other programs.

An emailed statement attributed to Blair said the agencies have streamlined hearings but ensure "that all relevant risk-related information continues to be presented."

He has also asked the parole board to extend leniency toward "non-violent and lower-risk inmates" who seek parole before they're eligible, when they are terminally ill or have serious medical issues.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca