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Early release possible for non-violent offenders as B.C. Corrections deals with COVID-19 crisis

B.C. Corrections is considering early releases for inmates serving time for non-violent offences as a way to reduced populations in provincial jails amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

B.C. Corrections is considering early releases for inmates serving time for non-violent offences as a way to reduced populations in provincial jails amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Risk assessments are being conducted for possible candidates, according to a fact sheet provided to the Citizen by the Ministry of Solicitor General and Public Safety. They take into account "sentence length, offence type, and any other relevant information, including risk to public safety," as well as whether the inmate has the necessary supports in place upon release.

Advocacy groups, including the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Canadian Bar Association and Prisoners' Legal Services have been calling on federal and provincial governments to make the move.

As of Monday, no cases have been confirmed among the 1,920 inmates in any of B.C.'s 10 provincial jails, including Prince George Regional Correctional Centre. But two inmates and nine staff at a maximum-security prison in Quebec tested positive for COVID-19, according to a statement from Correctional Services of Canada.

B.C. Corrections has also been issuing "temporary absences" to those serving intermittent terms, which usually require the offender to attend jail on weekends.

The two serving such terms at PGRCC have been granted the absences but the number of inmates who have been granted early releases was not immediately available, Ministry of Public Safety public affairs officer Hope Latham said.

According to the fact sheet, inmates coming into the facilities are given a questionnaire and have their temperatures checked. Anyone with symptoms is isolated for 14 days before being placed with the general population, according to the ministry.

In-person visits have been banned while contracted services, like deliveries, have been limited. Lawyers have also been encouraged to meet with their clients over the phone or by video, when possible.

As for those in custody while awaiting trial, B.C. Prosecution Service communications counsel Daniel McLaughlin said Crown prosecutors are continuing to take the same approach to bail hearings they have prior to the outbreak.

However, he did note that in April 2019, the BCPS directed prosecutors to "exercise principled restraint in all bail matters, paying particular attention to the circumstances of Indigenous accused."

He said the policy the policy also "expressly recognizes" a dramatic increase in remand populations in recent years and that it "disproportionately affects accused persons from disadvantaged and vulnerable communities and tends to increase the accused's risk of criminalization."

"It also exacerbates the already unacceptable over-representation of Indigenous persons within the Canadian criminal justice system," McLaughlin said.

Shelly Bazuik, a legal advocate for Prisoners' Legal Services, said it appears the virus has not yet become the issue at PGRCC that it has at other jails and prisons.

"I've had a couple calls where they've mentioned it in passing...just saying they're keeping their units super clean," Bazuik said. "They were concerned about another prisoner coming in sick but it turned out he was just dope sick and it was not COVID."

BC Government and Service Employees Union president Stephanie Smith said the "concern and anxiety" among correctional officers and sheriffs her union represents is high. Banning double bunking and where possible reducing the number of inmates congregating together are among the measures Smith said the union is promoting with B.C. Corrections.

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