Federal corrections authorities have agreed to release their first prisoner because of medical vulnerability to death from COVID-19, one day after Canada’s first death of an inmate from the disease.
Derrick Snow, 53, who has cancer, had brought a lawsuit in Federal Court in Ottawa seeking his release. On Thursday, a day before the court had scheduled an emergency hearing, authorities notified his lawyers he will be released on Tuesday, with an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet and other conditions.
One of his lawyers, Paul Champ, said the release of Mr. Snow sets a precedent for other medically vulnerable prisoners, and he called on the Correctional Service of Canada to set up a task force to identify prisoners with appropriate profiles for medical release.
“The reasoning is clear that low-risk federal inmates who are medically vulnerable can and should be released under the temporary absence provisions in the legislation,” he said of the corrections service’s written decision authorizing Mr. Snow’s release.
The CSC did not respond to a request for comment on Mr. Champ’s call for a task force to identify others for release.
Corrections authorities revealed Thursday that an inmate from the medium-security wing of Mission Institution in British Columbia died at Abbotsford Regional Hospital on Wednesday from apparent complications related to COVID-19. As in all inmate deaths, they said, they notified the coroner, who is to review the circumstances. They said they are respecting personal privacy by not disclosing the inmate’s name or medical details.
“CSC extends its condolences to the family. The thoughts of management and staff are with them at this time,” the service said in a news release.
"We continue to look at options to see what further measures can be taken to ensure that inmates, staff and our communities are as safe and healthy as possible during this crisis.”
Mission, near Vancouver, has the country’s largest prison outbreak, with 54 inmates having tested positive. The next largest is at Joliette Institution for Women in Quebec, near Montreal, with 48 cases. The number of prisoners and staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 is rising quickly. As of Thursday, 145 inmates (up from 91 the day before) and 88 staff members have tested positive. Six inmates are hospitalized. No cases have been reported at Bath Institution near Kingston, a medium-security facility where Mr. Snow is incarcerated.
Federal prisoners serve sentences of at least two years, and are therefore the country’s most serious convicted offenders. Some provincial governments have set teams to identify and release large numbers of inmates – some awaiting trial, and some convicted and nearing the end of their sentences. But the Canadian government has not said yet whether it intends to follow their example, or that of 38 other countries, including the United States and Britain, that are releasing prisoners, according to an affidavit filed in a court case launched by Mr. Snow.
“It’s so sad and infuriating,” Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services in Burnaby, B.C., said of the prisoner death, referring to the lack of action on releases and what she views as a lack of protection given the prisoners. “It was only last week that people started getting masks and gloves.”
Mr. Snow has malignant sarcoma, a blood clot in his leg, diabetes and a respiratory disease, and was due to be released in a little more than three months. Mr. Snow will live in a London, Ont., duplex owned by his sister, Crystal Pirie, who lives in the upstairs unit.
“Fantastic,” Ms. Pirie said. “I’m not going to be worried so much he’s going to get worse, and get that COVID in there.”
He has been serving time for break and enter and theft, and has a decades-long criminal record, including an “abysmal” record of committing crimes while living in the community under supervision, and has a “low reintegration potential,” the CSC said in an assessment that is part of the release decision. But he has no record of violent crime, his lawyers say, and he is now in a wheelchair.
Mr. Champ, the lawyer, said the emergency hearing in Federal Court has now been cancelled, but more release requests will follow. “We have already been contacted by inmates and/or their lawyers from other federal prisons and will be looking to expand this precedent right away.”
While Mr. Snow was the first inmate released by corrections authorities for medical reasons related to COVID-19, the Parole Board of Canada has expedited at least two releases: a pregnant prisoner in Quebec, and an elderly prisoner with lupus in Ontario.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.