Ontario will release some inmates nearing the end of their sentence in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, an announcement that comes one day after a correctional officer at the Toronto South Detention Centre was tested and sent home on suspicion of having contracted the disease.
The decision follows reports that several prisoners in Quebec are exhibiting symptoms, and as inmates, lawyers and correctional officers are raising alarms about the danger COVID-19 poses to prisoners. In a press briefing on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government was closely monitoring the situation in Canada’s federal prisons.
Only inmates deemed low risk will be eligible for long-term temporary absences, said Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General, which manages the province’s adult correctional system. Those convicted of serious crimes, including violent crimes and crimes involving guns, will not be considered.
The ministry also announced that the Ontario Parole Board will be allowed to conduct hearings electronically or in writing.
Last week, the province said it would grant temporary absences to certain prisoners serving intermittent sentences. Inmates on intermittent sentences are required to be in detention only on certain days, usually weekends. It also temporarily stopped personal visits to jails.
Following the incident with the Toronto South Detention Centre correctional officer, the Ministry of the Solicitor General has been in touch with local public-health authorities, said spokesperson Kristy Denette. “Our thoughts are with the correctional officer and his family during this time."
“The health and safety of our staff and those in our custody is a priority," Ms. Denette said in an emailed statement. "As Ontario continues to take action to slow the spread of COVID-19, we are making further changes to protect our frontline corrections workers and our health-care system from the burden an outbreak in our correctional system would cause.”
Ten inmates have now been tested for COVID-19 across Ontario’s adult correctional system, Ms. Denette said. Five tests have come back negative and five are still pending.
In Quebec, 18 inmates spread throughout the province’s prison system have exhibited symptoms of the illness, such as coughing, shortness of breath and fever, according to a report in French-language newspaper Le Devoir. In a brief statement, Ministry of Public Safety spokesperson Louise Quintin said no cases had been confirmed.
Ottawa-based human-rights lawyer Paul Champ applauded Ontario’s decision to release prisoners early.
“We know that when COVID-19 gets into those prisons, it’ll run right through them very quickly,” he said.
Mr. Champ said that Ontario’s detention centres are already overcrowded, with some inmates triple-bunking in their cells, meaning one sleeps on the floor while two others sleep on a bunk bed.
“I think we are going to see pretty dramatic health effects resulting from the coronavirus if authorities don’t take steps immediately to reduce those prison populations,” Mr. Champ said.
There are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in federal prisons, according to Correctional Service Canada spokesperson Martine Rondeau. Eleven inmates at Bowden Institution in Alberta were tested after exhibiting symptoms. Three came back negative and the rest are still pending, she said.
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