Coronavirus: Canadian Senator calls for immediate release of inmates to curb COVID-19

A Canadian Senator is calling for the release of inmates as the threat of COVID-19 spreading within prisons grows.

On Friday, Sen. Kim Pate told Global News that while most people practice physical distancing, those in federal and provincial prisons are being subjected to a dangerous environment.

“Some [inmates] have dementia, some have mental health issues, some have underlying physical health issues,” said Sen. Pate via Skype.

READ MORE: Inmate advocates warn of COVID-19 spread in Canada’s correctional facilities

Pate, who is the former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, believes additional measures are necessary to not only protect inmates from the virus but also the greater public.

“It would require the co-operation of every province and territory, as well as the federal government to roll it out throughout the country,” Pate told Global News.

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Pate says there is also a section of the Criminal Code that allows the federal cabinet to grant prisoners who aren’t deemed a public safety threat a conditional pardon and immediate release.

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That’s a call that has raised the eyebrows of the union representing correctional officers (UCCO-SACC-CSN). Noémi Desrochers, a communications representative for the union, said on Friday that the recent call by Sen. Pate to release inmates under the care, custody and control of corrections signals a complete disregard for public health.’

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She continued on to say that changes need to be down within the walls of the prison.

“The focus must be on changing routines in our institutions to respect social distancing and self-isolation directives to every extent possible,” said Desrochers.

READ MORE: Inmate at Toronto South Detention Centre tests positive for COVID-19

On Thursday, the government confirmed that an inmate and a correctional officer tested positive for COVID-19 at the Toronto South Detention Centre.

Those two cases, Pate said, could be the start of an outbreak.

“It’s not a case of if, it’s when this pandemic enters the prisons and how it will spread like wildfire through the prisons,” said Pate.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked by a reporter on Wednesday about the potential release of inmates due to COVID-19 concerns, and he answered by saying that his government is working closely with Corrections Canada to ensure that his government is looking at a broad range of measures.

As for what those measures are or when they would be unveiled, the prime minister did not provide details.

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READ MORE: Inmate advocates warn of COVID-19 spread in Canada’s correctional facilities

Sen. Pate says she understands that this call will create a stir but says prisoners are some of our most vulnerable people, and they need our help.

“I’m a member of the community, and I would not [be] proposing something that would create an increased risk,” said Pate.

Executive Director of John Howard Society Kingston and Area Julie Langan told Global News that inmates within the nine institutions are concerned about contracting the virus and the potential spread inside the prisons.

“Many are trying to find ways to support their families from the inside without making them, and explore any options available for an early release,” said Langan.

As for which inmates Sen. Pate is asking to be released, she says it will be those who are nearing the end of their sentences.

“We’re talking about people who the system has determined are ready to be in the community — who are queuing up, if you will — that are in minimum security getting ready to go out in a structured, supervised way into the community,” said Pate.