Alberta lawyers call for changes to prison system due to coronavirus risks

Mar 25 2020, 12:15 pm

A group of lawyers from Alberta are advocating for changes to the province’s prison system amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Criminal Trial Lawyers Association (CTLA) and the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Calgary addressed Alberta’s Minister of Justice, Canada’s Minister of Justice, Alberta Health Services Corrections, and other government agencies, calling for changes to Alberta’s prisons amid the pandemic.

It is understood that the trajectory of diagnosed cases will continue to increase for some time and as you are aware, Alberta has declared a state of emergency,” reads the letter, sent to Daily Hive by a member of the CTLA.

“While Canadians are being directed to increase social distancing and remove themselves from others, prisoners do not have the ability to make choices or implement measures which would protect them and those around them, as well as prevent further spread to and within communities outside the institutional environment.”

In addition to asking prisons to implement better physical distancing, the group is asking that the release of those detained for non-violent offences, those with less than 90 days remaining on their sentence, and those that are compromised or medically vulnerable.

In the event prisoners are quarantined with coronavirus symptoms, the group has outlined a number of measures prisons should implement to protect their mental and physical health.

Prisoners who are quarantined or isolated due to the virus should be allowed free access to phones as well as regular access to mental health counselling through phone or via glass interview rooms to ensure meaningful and sustained human contact,” says the letter.

“We call on you to ensure that no prisoners are deprived of contact with the community, including their community supports and legal counsel, due to the pandemic.”

Katherine Thompson, a spokesperson for Alberta Justice, says that the Minister of Justice, Solicitor General, and Alberta Health Services are coordinating a response and working to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“In Alberta’s provincial correctional, remand, and young offender centres, additional hand sanitizer and other sanitization products are currently being procured for correctional centre use,” said Thompson.

“In consultation with the Justice and Solicitor General COVID-19 Emergency Management Department, we are working to ensure the provision of necessary personal protective equipment and sanitization supplies. AHS has provided informational signage advising inmates and staff of COVID-19 symptoms, and best practices to prevent spread of the virus.”

In addition, inmate screening has increased to ensure all inmates are asked about travel, coronavirus symptoms, or exposure, to individuals with coronavirus symptoms.

In addition to hand sanitizer in admissions and holding, in the units, Thompson said inmates have access to soap and water and are being encouraged to be extra vigilant with hand washing, as per AHS directions.

Thompson says there are procedures in place if an inmate develops cold or flu symptoms.

“If any inmate is showing signs of cold or flu like symptoms, they are immediately taken to a sink to wash their hands with soap and water and given a mask and gloves, to help prevent the spread of any virus/illness,” says Thompson.

“AHS would then complete the cursory medical, which now contains questions specific to COVID-19. Depending on the inmate’s answers to these questions they may or may not be isolated. AHS would make that call.”

In the event an inmate is deemed to have coronavirus, they will be placed in isolation, and Alberta Health Services Corrections is responsible for inmate health care services delivery including the implementation of coronavirus-specific infectious disease protocols.

“If an inmate was deemed to be COVID-19 presumptive or confirmed, they would be placed in an infirmary unit in isolation in accordance with current AHS clinical guidelines,” says Thompson.

Thompson says the approach being taken in Alberta’s prisons is in line with the approach across Canada.

Still, the lawyers believe the facilities should review prisoners for release.

“Prisoners in Alberta’s jails are perhaps the most vulnerable institutional population. When this pandemic infects the jails there will be catastrophic consequences, both for inmates and for the wider community,” the letter reads.

“We urge you to take the necessary actions to dramatically reduce the prison population before it is too late.”