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Alberta lawyers’ groups call for changes to prison system, early releases amid COVID-19

File shot of a prisoner. .
File shot of a prisoner. . Global News

Several lawyers’ groups in the province are calling for sweeping changes to Alberta’s prison system, including implementing early releases, to prevent an “impending emergency” due to the spread of COVID-19.

There are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in any provincial remand, correctional or youth facility in Alberta, said an emailed statement on Tuesday from Katherine Thompson, a communications advisor for Alberta Justice.

However, in a letter addressed to Alberta’s minister of justice, Canada’s minister of justice, Alberta Health Services Corrections, and other government agencies, the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association and the Criminal Defence Lawyers Assocation of Calgary call for sweeping new measures in the prison system.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Edmonton police consider ‘all options’ to mitigate overcrowding in jails

In the letter dated March 23, the CTLA and CDLAC say that while Canadians are being directed to social distance, prisoners do not have the ability to implement those measures.

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“We call upon those who are responsible for prisoners in Alberta to immediately implement creative solutions to reduce the number of individuals who are serving jail sentences or are remanded while presumed innocent,” said the letter.

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The lawyers’ groups say in the letter they believe that those detained for non-violent offences, those with 90 days or less remaining of their sentences, and those with medical conditions should be released from the system.

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“We ask that staff be tasked with assessing the need to continue to incarcerate each prisoner, such that the necessity of continuing to incarcerate each inmate is closely reviewed within the next week.”

The letter said there are legal options for the releases, including conditional pardons, early release in exceptional cases, temporary absences, and prisoners serving intermittent sentences (serving at home).

READ MORE: Coronavirus: U.S. inmates, including Bernie Madoff, argue for release amid outbreak

Jordan Stuffco, the vice president of CTLA, told Global News that Alberta’s associate deputy minister of justice had already responded and told the groups there is work being done to increase sanitation and add more screening.

The letter also calls for additional cleaning and strict protocols for visitors to help protect the prisoners who would not qualify for release.

“When this pandemic infects the jails there will be catastrophic consequences, both for inmates and for the wider community,” the letter said.

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“We cannot wait for this to occur and question then what more we could have done and why we allowed needless deaths to occur.”

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On March 24, the province said the current number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the province was now at 358, with two deaths.

Current COVID-19 practices at Alberta prisons

Currently corrections facilities are working with AHS and implementing a number of measures to halt COVID-19, “in line with the approach being adopted across Canada,” said Thompson.

Some of the new measures include that admission screenings will now have COVID-19 related travel and symptom questions, as well as Alberta Health Services Corrections working with partners to make sure that staff watch for symptoms prior to inmates being transported to corrections facilities.

Hand sanitizer is being made available to inmates in the admissions and discharge areas, and soap and water is available in holding cells. Inmates are being encouraged to be “extra vigilant” with hand washing and are being made aware of the symptoms of COVID-19 through AHS signage.

READ MORE: Guards union says prison needle exchange expansion on hold because of COVID-19

All provincial detention centres are also making changes to “out of cell” time to allow for social distancing.

Any inmate who shows cold or flu symptoms is immediately taken to a sink to wash their hands and then given a mask and gloves. That inmate would then be assessed by AHS and, if needed, may be isolated in an infirmary unit at the facility.

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Coronavirus outbreak: AHS takes steps to minimize transmission of COVID-19 at hospitals
Coronavirus outbreak: AHS takes steps to minimize transmission of COVID-19 at hospitals

Staff are also being monitored for symptoms and are told to stay home for 14 days if they have travelled.