The Government Said It's Releasing Many Inmates to Combat COVID-19. It's Not

The numbers provided by Public Safety Minister Bill Blair just don’t add up.
Justin Ling
Montreal, Canada
May 1, 2020, 2:22pm
Canada, bill blair, prison, coronavirus
Minister of Pubic Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair speaks to media during the third and final day of the Liberal cabinet retreat at the Fairmont Hotel in Winnipeg, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Sudoma

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, the man responsible for Canada’s federal prisons, has said that “literally hundreds” of inmates have been released amid the threat of COVID-19. Blair says he has personally instructed both the federal prisons system and the national parole board to “to use their authorities to facilitate the release of inmates.”

By mid-April, Blair said “about 600 people have already been released just in the past month that we identified as being eligible for release” while his office has said the overall prison population has “decline[d] by nearly 275 inmates, or more than the average size of a minimum-security facility.”

But it appears that less than a handful of inmates have actually been released to protect them from coronavirus. More than 250 federal prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19.

VICE has looked at the numbers provided by Correctional Services Canada and Blair’s own office, and has identified just one inmate released due to COVID-19—a federal inmate who filed a lawsuit against the corrections agency. Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger previously told CBC he has, anecdotally, heard of two pregnant women and another inmate with cancer being released as a result of COVID-19. Zinger’s office confirmed Friday they have no additional information.

VICE has directly asked Correctional Services, Blair’s office, and the Parole Board of Canada exactly how many inmates have been released specifically due to COVID-19, but not one of the three has answered.

Correctional Services Canada did provide numbers showing that releases and paroles, overall, may have actually slowed in recent weeks.

The “600 people” figure that Blair gave earlier this month, in a Facebook livestream organized by a fellow Liberal Member of Parliament, garnered headlines and news stories about Ottawa’s effort to depopulate federal prisons during the threat of COVID-19.

Just days later, Blair walked back those comments, saying that while 600 inmates may have been released overall, when it came to those released specifically due to COVID-19, “I don’t have a precise number.”

His office later clarified that 600 inmates are released per month “during normal circumstances…through day and full parole, statutory release or completion of sentence.”

Asked by VICE, Correctional Services, which manages Canada’s 14,000 federal inmates, said that in all of March, 626 inmates were released, roughly in line with the average.

From April 1 to 17, the last day for which they provided numbers, there were 295 releases—putting them on track for roughly 100 fewer released for the month of April than in March.

And while the federal inmate population may have shrunk by nearly 300, it appears to have nothing to do with actions taken by Ottawa. As COVID-19 has functionally shutdown the day-to-day operations of the courts, fewer trials are happening, and fewer offenders are being convicted and sentenced to serve time in federal prisons. That means while fewer inmates may be sitting in federal prison, more may be serving time in provincial jails, which are often even more crowded and are even more lacking in basic healthcare services.

According to Senator Don Plett, the leader of the Conservative caucus in the Senate, Correctional Services told parliamentarians on an April 25 technical briefing call that, of the 295 inmates released, 200 had reached the end of their sentence, and just 95 were granted parole.

“In other words, contrary to the Minister’s claim, the number is actually somewhat below the normal monthly average,” Plett said in a statement. Plett himself opposes the early release of inmates due to COVID-19, warning against “shortcuts” to get prisoners out. Even still, he argued: “It is completely inexplicable why the Minister would choose not be truthful with Canadians during the current crisis. Lack of transparency undermines public confidence in the Government at a critical time.”

Blair’s office has refused or ignored interview requests since the outbreak began, and Blair has not, like many other cabinet ministers, participated in the daily COVID-19 briefings in the past month.

Many health experts, human rights groups, and prisoner rights advocates say the only way to protect those who need to stay inside these prisons—including inmates, healthcare workers, and corrections officers—is to release those who do not need to be there.

As of Wednesday, 285 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. While inmates and staff reported that institutions across the country were not practising adequate hygiene or social distancing, inmates and internal directives suggest things have begun to change in recent days. Guards have begun wearing protective equipment, prison managers have been enforcing hand-washing practises, and inmates have been issued masks.

“Things are getting a bit better,” Aaron Tam, an inmate at the hard-hit Mission Medium Institution, said. “But we’re still being treated like dogs.”

Tam began showing COVID-19 symptoms two weeks ago, but “I had to fight to get a test,” he said. Prison staff told him there weren’t enough kits. When he finally got one, it came back positive. Sitting in his cell for 23-and-a-half hours a day, coughing mucus and blood, Tam said thoughts of suicide have entered his head. “I feel like I’m going to die here,” he said. He used the 20 minutes he receives out of his cell a day to call VICE.

He said a prison nurse visits his cell once or twice a day to check vital signs, but otherwise he hasn’t received any medication or treatment. “Nothing,” he says.

Tam has just four months left on his five-year sentence for a slew of organized crime and drug-related charges.

The only inmate that VICE can confirm was released due to COVID-19 is Derrick Snow, an inmate in the federal Bath Institution whose request for release was denied. Snow filed a lawsuit in Federal Court, arguing that denying him an absence from the prison amid the pandemic, given his underlying health concerns, would violate his constitutional rights.

After a judge agreed to hear the case, over the objection of Department of Justice lawyers, Correctional Services reversed course and allowed him to leave the prison to live with his cancer-stricken sister. Snow had been serving time on petty theft and breaking-and-entering convictions.

Blair has insisted that the issue at hand is that there are just few good candidates for release in federal prisons. “Many of those people have to stay incarcerated,” Blair said during that Facebook townhall. “Almost a third of them are serving life sentences for offences such as for murder. And, unfortunately more than half of them are in jail for very serious violence offences.”

Statistics released by his own ministry show Blair is roughly correct—less than a quarter of inmates are serving life or indeterminate sentences, not a third—but his numbers only tell half the story.

About half of the federal inmate population is serving a sentence of five years or less. Nearly 30% of inmates are serving time on non-violent drug charges. That report also shows the wild racial disparity in Canada’s prisons, where nearly a quarter of all inmates are Indigenous.

Some provinces have tackled this issue more aggressively.

Ontario, for example, has embarked to release as many non-violent, low-risk inmates as possible. A spokesperson for the Ontario government says they have continued releasing low-risk inmates who are already nearing the end of their sentence — the total provincial inmate population now stands at 5,623, down from 8,344 in mid-March. That’s a reduction of nearly one-third. Ontario’s incarcerated population hasn’t been this low since 1990.

Provinces, however, have their hands tied. Most provincial prisoners have never been convicted of a crime, and awaiting trial. Their release, therefore, is mostly up to the courts and Crown attorneys. The Public Prosecution Service of Canada has sent a directive to federal attorneys, instructing them to seek bail and release of low-risk accused individuals where possible, but criminal lawyers report those prosecutors are still seeking jailtime in many cases.

And while provincial prison systems can issue temporary absence permits to inmates, parole is—in most provinces—up to the Parole Board of Canada. Blair has insisted that, on his direction, the parole board has changed rules to “facilitate quicker decision-making processes,” neither his office nor the Parole Board has provided any data to establish that things are being heard more quickly.

The Parole Board has not responded to requests for comment.

It’s not even clear what changes have been made. A parole board document sent to inmates, provided to VICE, reads only that “information concerning your health or the health risk posed by the COVID-19 pandemic will be considered, if relevant, as part of the risk assessment.”

Some of the parole board changes have actually made it harder for inmates to be released.

The board has cancelled all “elder-assisted hearings”—special meetings designed to give Indigenous communities a role in advising the board regarding Indigenous inmates. “You may request to postpone your hearing to a later date,” the board told Indigenous parole applicants.

According to the internal documents, the federal board has also “cancelled all temporary absence applications until further notice, except those that are medically necessary.” In other provinces, inmates already being released on temporary absence permits were told to go home and remain under house arrest, at least until the end of the pandemic.

VICE spoke with one former inmate who had been living in a halfway house in Toronto. He had been granted a 15-day leave from the house — in part because one of his neighbours in the home had developed COVID-19 symptoms. Despite the parole board extending those permits to 30 days, his parole officer instructed him to return to the halfway house, where he has been for the past week.

VICE also spoke to three inmates in a provincial jail in British Columbia, all of whom are serving time for motor vehicle offences or white collar crime, who have been stuck in limbo. One inmate was actually granted day parole, but has not been allowed to leave. “I’m stuck in here due to circumstances,” one inmate said. He did not want to speak on the record, for fear of retribution from the prison.

“I should have been out of here a month ago.”

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