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Inmate populations decline across Canada amid coronavirus pandemic

Canada’s inmate population decreasing amid COVID-19
Across the country, the number of people in custody has seen an unprecedented decline during the COVID-19 pandemic. It's all part of the response to help contain the spread of the coronavirus in correctional institutions, but as Nicole Stillger explains, advocates say conditions in jails still need to improve.

There were roughly 6,000 fewer people in correctional institutions across the country in April, compared to February, according to a recent report by Statistics Canada.

It was all part of the response to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in jails.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many health and safety challenges for Canadians, particularly for populations in correctional institutions,” the report reads.

“Correctional institutions face unique challenges when it comes to preventing COVID-19 infection and transmission among custodial populations, given the close-proximity living conditions and the lack of physical distancing options.”

Read more: Some Alberta convicts move to house arrest to mitigate COVID-19 risk: official

The president of the Canadian Prison Law Association said fewer people in jails is good.

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“When COVID-19 eventually passes, I certainly hope that governments will look at this and say, ‘Well, we’ve got way too many people in prison,'” Tom Engel said.

Calls for faster action to stop COVID-19 spread in prisons
Calls for faster action to stop COVID-19 spread in prisons

The report noted the bulk of the decline came in provincial jails.

Read more: Judges release growing number accused of violent crimes due to COVID-19 fears

In Alberta, between February and April, the inmate population went down by 27 per cent — just over the national average of 25 per cent.

“What we know is it’s an unprecedented decline in the prison population, but we don’t know why,” Engel said.

The report said reducing the number of people in correctional facilities reduces the health risk.

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Some of the steps taken by the Canadian justice and correctional systems include early release of low risk offenders, extended periods for parole appeals and alternatives for those awaiting trials, sentencing and bail hearings.

Read more: Coronavirus outbreaks declared over in federal prisons, staff prepare for ‘new normal’

Engel noted it’s hard to pinpoint the reasons for fewer people in Alberta jails.

“I know that they’re not releasing people early because of COVID-19. That is the information I have,” he said.

“I know that they’re turning away intermittent servers.”

Inmates at some Ontario jails being released to stop the possible spread of COVID-19
Inmates at some Ontario jails being released to stop the possible spread of COVID-19

The province said its reduced occupancy to 62 per cent since the start of the pandemic and implemented guidelines.

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“These include things like separately quarantining new admissions for up to 14 days,” Katherine Thompson said in a statement, a spokesperson for the Justice and Solicitor General.

Operating a separate isolation unit and keeping inmates single bunked where possible are some of the other health measures, Thompson noted.

“These prudent actions are one of the reasons why there have only been 11 positive inmate infection cases of COVID-19 in Alberta’s provincial correctional facilities, all having been contracted in the community and with no spread within the facilities,” she said.

Read more: Inmate at B.C. prison says response to massive COVID-19 outbreak was ‘not nice at all’

Engel said there are many ongoing health and safety challenges for inmates.

“They don’t have control of their own environment — they don’t have control of hygiene in the jail,” he explained.

Stats Canada’s report said as of Aug 6, 1,496 COVID-19 tests had been conducted on the federal custodial population, and about one-quarter of these were positive.

Two people have died and one case is ongoing.