The NWT’s justice minister says territorial jails are trying to reduce their inmate numbers as one way of guarding against a possible Covid-19 outbreak.
Caroline Wawzonek told Cabin Radio there are efforts under way to cut down on the number of people being sent to jail for the time being, and hand temporary absences to others “close to the end of their sentences” – allowing them to return to their home communities.
The aim is to avoid the worst-case scenario of Covid-19 infiltrating and then spreading within a northern jail.
However, the measures outlined by Wawzonek appeared more limited in scope than those her department had been urged to take by a group of 15 defence lawyers.
In a letter dated March 23, the lawyers asked the corrections system to publish jails’ plans for handling Covid-19 – and release inmates to protect them from the possible consequences of a jail-based outbreak.
The 15 lawyers expressed “grave concern” for the welfare of NWT inmates.
While the territory’s chief public health officer recommended the cancelling of all gatherings, the lawyers wrote, inmates were being placed “at serious risk of rapid transmission and exposure to the virus, should it make its way into the institutions, and do not have the freedom to protect themselves.”
The letter stated: “Many of the inmates held in the Northwest Territories’ jails will return home to small communities outside of Yellowknife. It is important that they be able to do so now before the virus enters the jails and puts them at risk of infection, and transmission to the communities.”
The lawyers called for jail wardens to grant temporary absences, allowing inmates – the most vulnerable first – to head to their home communities and wait out the pandemic. They also demanded that “each institution’s plan for prevention, testing, outbreak management, and treatment of Covid-19” be made public.
While the NWT government stopped short of that, it did on Wednesday publish a Q&A on its website explaining how jails intend to protect both inmates and staff during the pandemic.
The territory says its jails are currently not full and each inmate has their own cell, allowing physical distancing. Officers are reviewing infectious disease procedures, the NWT government said, monitoring inmates for symptoms, and wearing gloves, a gown, and a procedural mask if working near an inmate who is symptomatic.
Personal visits have been replaced by additional phone calls.
Reducing inmate numbers
Scrutiny of the NWT corrections system’s response comes as coronavirus cases are reported in prisons elsewhere.
In Etobicoke, Ontario, both a prisoner and guard at a detention centre are reported to have tested positive in recent days.
In the NWT, Wawzonek told Cabin Radio the chief federal prosecutor for the territory was “trying to look at individuals on remand” and keep them out of cells for the time being if possible.
She added jails would try to allow temporary absences for some non-violent prisoners near the end of their sentences.
“We are encouraging people to apply through their case worker,” she said. “There are criteria set out and we are following a process that ensures we are considering the risk when an offender is released.”
In particular, Wawzonek said, the ability of a community to reintegrate a returning offender “in the current climate is probably going to be a bit more restrained and challenged.”
Peter Harte, one of the defence lawyers who signed the letter to Wawzonek, said on Wednesday he felt the core issues raised in the letter had still not been well addressed.
“The concern that we had – and it was a specific request that information be disclosed about the plan – remains unsatisfied,” he said, after Wawzonek had spoken to Cabin Radio but before the publication of more information online.
“The courts need to know what’s going on,” said Harte. “Judges are sending people to jail and they should know the conditions that they’re sending them to.”
Wawzonek, a lawyer before becoming the territory’s justice minister, acknowledged she would probably have felt the same frustration had she been in Harte’s position.
“But I now see it from a very different side, the responsibility to protect staff and inmates,” she said.
“I realize there is some frustration in not knowing some of those details. At the same time, when it comes to corrections, they can’t always release the operational details.”
Keeping people out
In discussing jails’ plans for Covid-19, Wawzonek said the corrections system had been preparing for the disease since January along with other NWT government departments.
She said the continuing threat of tuberculosis in northern Canada meant the NWT’s jails were better-prepared than many to handle contagious diseases.
The minister said there would be enhanced screening for new inmates, including “very specific questions designed in consultation with the chief public health officer” to establish who might have been exposed to Covid-19.
“A single case [of the disease] anywhere could create a complex scenario,” she acknowledged.
In their letter, the defence lawyers noted most NWT prisoners are Indigenous. “In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, we fear this over-representation will mean a disproportionate exposure and vulnerability to the virus,” they wrote.
Ultimately, said Wawzonek, that over-representation of Indigenous people in territorial jails is the bigger problem that needs solving.
“Philosophically, my desire to see that reduced hasn’t changed,” she said.
“The most effective tool, to me, is keeping people out of the jail system in the first place.”