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Oliver, B.C. man released early from Okanagan jail due to COVID-19 outbreak

Oliver, B.C. man released early from Okanagan jail due to COVID-19 outbreak

A South Okanagan man says he was released early from the Okanagan Correctional Centre (CC) to reduce the jailhouse population in the wake of a positive case of COVID-19 in the facility.

The 60-year-old man from Oliver, B.C., who Global News has agreed not to identify to protect his safety, said he was granted an early release on April 3, with 29 days left to serve on his sentence.

“It’s a life-saver, that’s what I thought,” he said.

The former inmate said the remainder of his four-month sentence for driving while suspended is forgiven and he will not have to serve the 29 days in the future.

READ MORE: Sick inmate recently released from Okanagan jail fears he may have been exposed to COVID-19

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“My release form said reason for release is COVID contingency. It’s because COVID had gotten into the prison,” he said.

The man said he was one of three prisoners released early on Friday and other inmates are submitting applications in the hopes of following suit.

“One guard mentioned that, because we were getting out, everybody else was putting in requests to get out, right. The other guard said ‘look at all these guys, it’s not going to happen.’”

Coronavirus: Inmates at Saskatoon jail under quarantine after possible link to COVID-19
Coronavirus: Inmates at Saskatoon jail under quarantine after possible link to COVID-19

On April 2, B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry confirmed an inmate at the Okanagan jail had tested positive for COVID-19.

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BC Corrections, which operates provincial correctional centres for offenders serving sentences of less than two years, said the inmate who contracted the virus was isolated under medical observation and tested at the onset of showing symptoms.

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Stephanie Smith, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, which represents corrections officers in B.C., said members have long been concerned about a viral outbreak within a correctional facility.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Interior Health orders immediate closure of fitness centres, similar facilities

“Our members have been raising concerns about the potential of an outbreak. The health officers right across Canada recognize that jails are particularly at risk if a COVID infection does get into the jail system,” she said on Monday.

Smith said the union is awaiting guidelines from the provincial health officer on personal protective equipment (PPE) that could be worn by jail guards in B.C. correctional institutions.

COVID-19: Preventing prison outbreaks in Canada
COVID-19: Preventing prison outbreaks in Canada

“We are going to be doing a provincial risk assessment that is rolling out this week and our occupational health and safety staff are going to be taking this very seriously. We will push if we have to say our members need protection,” Smith said.

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Smith said the union is not taking a position whether or not non-violent offenders should be released to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus in B.C. institutions.

James Pennington, a defence lawyer in Penticton who represents inmates in custody at the OCC, said he supports the release of low-risk offenders.

READ MORE: Mother of inmate fears for son’s safety after COVID-19 confirmed at Okanagan jail

“It has to be on a case-by-case basis, but the overriding concern now is not just for the jail population but for the larger population, because it’s believed that the virus was introduced into OCC by probably a staff member, because visits were cut off on March 12,” he said.

“We can always monitor them by other means in the community. The police do curfew checks all the time at all hours of the night,” Pennington said.

BC Corrections says it is currently conducting risk assessments for non-violent, sentenced offenders for consideration for early release.

“This assessment and ultimate determination on release considers criminal history, sentence length, offence type, and any other relevant information, including risk to public safety,” it says in a fact sheet provided to the media.

BC Corrections says its also granting temporary absences to those serving intermittent sentences, which means those who are serving their jail sentences on weekends, to reduce the inmate population.

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