Loved ones of inmates worry COVID-19 will 'spread like wildfire' in the prison system
TORONTO -- The spouses of two inmates at a Toronto-area prison are hoping the federal government will allow for the early release of non-violent offenders to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the prison system.
Jennifer Currant and Luciana Infusino-Tomei each have husbands who are staying in the Beaver Creek Institution north of Toronto. Both husbands are first-time offenders in prison for non-violent crimes.
“He made a mistake and he’s taken his punishment in stride,” Currant, whose husband is scheduled for parole at the end of April, told CTV News. “(He’s) completely regretful for everything and now I’m worried he might not be able to get out on time or even come home so he might be able to help our family.”
The women believe the nature of the prison system -- tight living arrangements and surrounded with other people -- could be a recipe for disaster when it comes to a highly contagious virus such as COVID-19.
“There is no isolation at the prison,” Currant said. “They all live in close quarters with each other, so if by chance COVID-19 gets in there, it’s going to spread live wildfire.”
Infusino-Tomei, whose husband is serving a three-year sentence after pleading guilty to drug-related offences, compared the situation to that of cruise ships, which have already shown to be problematic.
"We know mass quarantines don't work because of those people left on cruise ships for weeks at a time," she told The Canadian Press last week. "If something like that happens in prison, it's going to be far more dangerous, far more catastrophic on a far larger scale."
Infusino-Tomei and Currant aren’t the only loved ones calling for the early release of non-violent offenders. A mother in Saskatchewan, whose son is behind bars at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, told CTV Saskatoon that she’s “scared to death” for her son and his risk of exposure to the virus, given two corrections officers in Saskatoon tested positive for the virus last week.
On Monday, the Correctional Service of Canada said two inmates and nine employees at the Port-Cartier Institution, a maximum-security facility in Quebec, also tested positive for COVID-19.
Currant said her husband told her the Beaver Creek Institution is on lockdown to keep a potential outbreak under control, meaning inmates are only allowed two hours per day outside his cell.
“A lot of people, unfortunately, have made a bad mistake and they get incarcerated for it, and they pay their punishment, but shouldn’t have to sit in there where a virus can spread and literally contaminate all of them,” Currant said.
Infusino-Tomei said her husband is working with a parole lawyer to argue his situation constitutes “excessive hardship” under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, which could allow for an early release.
"My argument is that the pandemic is a public health risk for prisoners and the risk of getting the virus is a hardship that was not previously foreseen," Fergus J. (Chip) O'Connor, the parole lawyer, The Canadian Press.
MOVEMENT COULD BE ON THE WAY
It looks like Currant and Infusino-Tomei could soon have their wish as on Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair asked the federal prison service and the Parole Board to examine the possibility of early releases for some offenders.
“Our government is committed to protecting the safety of correctional staff, inmates, and the public,” Mary-Liz Power, a spokesperson for Blair, wrote in a statement.
“Minister Blair has asked both the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada and the Chair of the Parole Board of Canada to determine whether there are measures that could be taken to facilitate early release for certain offenders.”
In response, a spokesperson for the CSC told The Canadian Press that the department is working with the Parole Board to examine “all options with respect to the safe release of offenders into the community.”
The decision ultimately rests in the hands of the Parole Board, however. In a statement, the board said it is working with the other interested parties to "to ensure a broad number of options are considered to safely release offenders into the community in response to the COVID-19 situation."
SUPPORT FROM LEGAL ORGANIZATIONS
The idea of releasing non-violent offenders from prison early also has the support from several legal organizations across Canada.
The Canadian Bar Association recently sent a letter to Blair advising to look at other options for some offenders in prison and immigration-detention facilities, including early release.
"Coupled with the close quarters in these facilities, limited access to hygiene and preventive products, and inability to act on social-distancing recommendations from public health authorities, we believe the current situation may soon become dire," the association wrote in the letter.
The union for Legal Aid Lawyers in Saskatchewan, the Alberta Prison Justice Society, the Ligue des Droits et Libertes in Quebec, the Canadian Prison Law Association and the Criminal Lawyers’ Association have also expressed a desire for similar reforms.
With files from The Canadian Press, CTV Saskatoon and CP24