The Federal Court in Ottawa has agreed to hold an emergency hearing by video on Friday that could lead to the release of scores of federal prisoners who are deemed vulnerable to death from COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions.
The Canadian government had argued against the emergency hearing being held this week, saying the case, brought by a prisoner with several health issues, lacked urgency. However, it now says corrections authorities will decide on the request by the end of Thursday.
If the authorities free Derrick Snow, an inmate of Bath Institution, near Kingston, his lawyers believe it would be Canada’s first release of a medically vulnerable federal prisoner during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Snow, 53, has cancer, diabetes, a lung condition and a blood clot on his leg. He has less than four months until his statutory release, at the two-thirds mark of his sentence, for break and enter and theft over $5,000. His lawyers say his decades-long record of more than 50 offences does not include any for violence. His sister, Crystal Pirie of London, Ont., has offered to let him live in an apartment beneath hers in a duplex she owns.
The court hearing could still go on even if he is released, one of his lawyers said, if the court believes the case is in the public interest, and the only way to put the issue before a judge.
“We may want to go ahead,” Paul Champ of Ottawa told The Globe and Mail, “because we want the court to confirm that this is a proper legal avenue to release prisoners on an urgent basis due to COVID. It shouldn’t take three weeks and a court battle to secure the release of the next medically vulnerable inmate who applies.”
He said the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is not taking the pandemic seriously. “There is a real problem here when this is what it takes to compel the release of an inmate who is confined to a wheelchair, is a non-violent offender, is especially medically vulnerable to COVID-19, and is close to the end of his sentence anyway.”
About 700 of Canada’s roughly 14,000 federal prisoners are elderly or infirm, prisons Ombudsman Ivan Zinger has reported.
The government, in asking the Federal Court earlier this week to delay the hearing, argued that Mr. Snow’s case isn’t as urgent as he claimed, because Bath Institution, which is near Kingston, has no known cases, and because CSC has protocols to limit the spread of the pandemic within its walls.
“CSC’s full attention is focused on responding to the threat posed by COVID-19 to inmates, its staff and the public,” lawyers for the Attorney-General said in a filing with the Federal Court.
Charette Amick, a spokesperson for the CSC, said on Wednesday it would be inappropriate to comment on Mr. Snow’s case because it is before the courts. Mr. Champ said he believes the CSC hopes to avoid a court hearing that could set a legal precedent.
The federal government has been under fire from lawyers’ groups and human rights advocates for not expediting the release of inmates during the pandemic. Prisoners have been released in at least 38 countries, including the United States and Britain, according to an affidavit filed in Mr. Snow’s case. Several provinces, including Ontario and Nova Scotia, have released prisoners because of COVID-19.
A slight loosening of federal release policies came on Wednesday. The Parole Board of Canada (PBC) posted on its website that it will speed up some releases. For instance, “for offenders already in the community on day parole and who become eligible for full parole, the PBC is looking at efficiencies to expedite those decisions.” And those already on 15-day medical absences can have 30 days.
There are 91 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19, according to statistics from corrections authorities, as of Wednesday. Of those, 41 are at the medium-security Mission Institution in British Columbia. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told the Senate last month that he has asked parole and corrections authorities for information on release options.
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