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Lawyers are seeking the urgent release of a federal prisoner with cancer, and a precedent for the release of hundreds of other medically vulnerable prisoners, as the new coronavirus pandemic infects growing numbers of inmates and staff inside Canadian prisons.

Derrick Snow has a large cancerous tumour on his leg, and less than four months to go on his prison sentence for theft. He now needs a wheelchair to get around. His sister is willing to take him in, giving him the apartment beneath hers in the duplex she owns in London, Ont.

But the last time he was released – just last May – he stole 17th-century objects from a museum two months later. Over the past three decades, Mr. Snow has served 10 federal sentences, for 41 property offences and eight drug-related offences, among others. (None of the offences were for violence.)

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With prisoner advocates and some physicians warning of a looming humanitarian crisis in Canadian correctional facilities, Mr. Snow’s lawyers wrote a letter on Tuesday to corrections authorities requesting an urgent approval – by Friday – of the release of the 53-year-old to his sister’s care, for medical reasons. If the approval is not received, says Paul Quick, of Queen’s University’s Prison Law Clinic, they will file a challenge this weekend in Federal Court, seeking a judicial release order for Mr. Snow, which they hope would create a precedent for other releases.

As of Wednesday, 35 federal inmates (up from 21 the previous day) have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 61 employees (up from 56 the previous day), according to the Correctional Service of Canada. Federal authorities in the United States and Britain are moving to release some medically vulnerable and other offenders to home confinement or electronic monitoring, and several Canadian provinces – British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland – have been releasing scores, even hundreds, of inmates.

In an exchange of e-mails last week, which Mr. Snow’s lawyers provided to The Globe and Mail, corrections authorities said prisoners cannot apply themselves for a temporary absence for medical reasons. Such an application would have to come from health-care professionals. And a release for Mr. Snow for medical reasons would have to be to a hospital, not to his sister’s care, they said.

“They’re not able to think outside the box that they’re usually thinking in,” Mr. Quick said in an interview. “And there’s not the push coming from the top to start thinking differently.”

A spokeswoman for the Correctional Service of Canada told The Globe it is carefully reviewing Mr. Snow’s case.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Public Safety Minister Bill Blair will be giving a public update on the prisons in the coming days. Mr. Blair oversees the federal prisons, which house roughly 14,000 people serving sentences of two years or more. A spokesman for his office, Mary-Liz Power, said he was not available for an interview at this time.

"Minister Blair asked both the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada and the chair of the Parole Board of Canada to determine whether there are measures that could be taken to facilitate early release for certain offenders,” she said in an e-mail.

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No inmate at the medium-security Bath Institution near Kingston, where Mr. Snow is incarcerated, has tested positive. Crystal Pirie, his sister, said he phoned her on Wednesday to say inmates and staff had just been told of a suspected case. A corrections website lists one inmate case at Bath with test results pending.

"My brother is a good and loving person who has made many mistakes,” Ms. Pirie said in an interview. “It shouldn’t be a life sentence for what he did.”

Paul Champ, a human-rights lawyer, is working with Mr. Quick on Mr. Snow’s case. Although the Federal Court has suspended most of its operations because of the pandemic, and is usually closed on Easter weekend, Mr. Champ said it will still be possible to file an urgent application this weekend, with a letter to Chief Justice Paul Crampton outlining the need for an urgent hearing.

Mr. Quick’s letter to the Correctional Service of Canada says federal authorities are violating Mr. Snow’s rights under Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – the right to life, liberty and personal security – and Section 12, the right to be free of cruel and unusual treatment.

In an interview, Mr. Quick said isolation and physical distance are part of the care Mr. Snow needs for medical reasons, to be safer from COVID-19. While he is single-bunked at Bath, he is in a mental-health unit in which some prisoners are not keeping the appropriate physical distance from one another, he said. Mr. Snow was diagnosed in early March with malignant sarcoma, attacking his muscles, he said, and also suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and diabetes. He also has a blood clot in his leg.

Mr. Snow grew up in New Brunswick. His father was physically abusive to Mr. Snow, his mother and sister, according to Ms. Pirie. Mr. Snow first entered federal prison as a 16-year-old, for property offences, she said. He was sexually abused by an older prisoner, according to Mr. Quick’s letter to the authorities. “He came out a totally different person than he went in,” Ms. Pirie said. He has had long-standing substance-abuse problems.

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