Conservative Premiers Are Doing More For People Behind Bars Than Justin Trudeau

There’s been a stark difference in the response to the coronavirus pandemic between provincial jails and federal prisons.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
Canada, Prisons, justin trudeau, Doug Ford
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a 2019 file photo. Image via The Canadian Press

In the months since COVID-19 first entered Canada’s prisons and jails, governments have reacted very differently.

Federally, as VICE reported last week, the Liberal government has done virtually nothing to reduce its prison population. A new report from the Office of the Correctional Investigator confirmed that reporting, finding that “there has been no increase in overall releases.”

Many provinces, however, are taking big steps to let low-risk inmates out, enabling social distancing inside those facilities and relieving strain on a system already beset by staffing shortages.


The unexpected thing is that the governments doing the most are some of the most staunchly Conservative governments in the country.

According to data supplied to VICE by the various governments, as well as numbers compiled by University of Ottawa associate professor Justin Piché, Canada’s total incarcerated population has declined by at least 5,300 since mid-March, when governments began taking action to combat COVID-19.

Across the country, that means the number of people behind bars has decreased nearly 15% below average.

The vast majority of the releases, however, have been in Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan—three provinces with three very conservative premiers. Three-quarters of all the inmates released during the pandemic have been released by those three provinces.

Of the provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have the highest incarceration rates, particularly when it comes to Indigenous inmates. From the outbreak of the virus, however, both provinces have seen their jailed populations come down by a quarter.

Ontario has gone even further, releasing a third of prisoners from its provincial institutions. The Progressive Conservative government has even struck a task force, assigned to review the entire provincial inmate population and select inmates who would be good candidates for release.

Both Quebec and British Columbia have reported roughly a 15% reduction of inmates locked up in their prisons.


While B.C. has been slower to release prisoners, a government release says they are continuing to review good candidates for release, and are working with the provincial housing authority to ensure released inmates have somewhere to go.

Alberta has only released a couple dozen inmates. A spokesperson for the Albertan Attorney General has said that, as there is a significant amount of extra space in provincial jails—which is not true of most jurisdictions—the province can enable social distancing without releasing inmates.

Numbers are still spotty in the territories, but the Northwest Territories has reported a reduction of approximately 25 percent.

Most of the Atlantic provinces, which have very small jailed populations to begin with, have only released a handful of inmates, with the exception of Nova Scotia. The government in Halifax told CBC News that some 200 inmates have been released due to COVID-19, cutting the total jailed population nearly in half.

Provinces only have authority to release inmates who have been convicted and sentenced. Prisoners who are still awaiting trial or sentencing can only be released by the courts. As the courts have, generally, suspended operations during the pandemic, it means that fewer inmates are being convicted and sentenced.

The fact that Doug Ford has emerged from this crisis as more pragmatic on criminal justice than Justin Trudeau, who has campaigned on criminal justice reform, is hard to ignore.


“It is frustrating to see provinces move more quickly, especially provinces that don't have the same history of strong advocacy for reforming our criminal justice system,” Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith told me in an interview last month.

That said, even though Trudeau has done virtually nothing to release inmates that hasn’t stopped the federal Conservative Party from criticizing him for doing too much.

“We are learning that, because of the pandemic, some [prison] releases are happening very quickly,” Conservative public safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus said in a virtual Question Period on Tuesday. Paul-Hus asked the prime minister why “some dangerous criminals are being released.”

“We have indeed opened the doors to some more speedy releases, but only in very specific cases that present little or no danger for Canadians,” Trudeau said in response. “We have managed to find the right balance.”

To date, neither Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, nor Correctional Services Canada, nor the Parole Board of Canada has provided any statistics on the number of inmates released due to COVID-19, despite requests by VICE and the Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger. While the parole board has ignored all requests for information from VICE, a regional spokesperson told CTV that, despite claims from Ottawa, parole considerations have not been sped up.

Releasing inmates is only one tactic to reduce the risk for inmates, corrections officers, support staff, and nearby communities—prison advocates and public health experts say social distancing, cleaning, the use of masks, and other measures are necessary to reduce the risk—but it is certainly part of the answer.


Numbers, compiled by Piché, show that the provinces have done a significantly better job of containing the outbreaks than Correctional Services Canada.

The federal prison system, which houses inmates sentenced to more than two years, has an average population of around 14,000; while provincial jails, incarcerates those serving shorter sentences and those awaiting trial, normally has about 25,000 in custody.

Despite that disparity, federal prisons have seen three times as many cases as the provinces—nearly 300 federal inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in federal prisons, while there have been just roughly 100 cases across all provincial institutions.

Two federal inmates have died.

Five years ago, Trudeau committed his government to reduce the overall prison population, especially for Indigenous offenders—something specifically recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That promise has seen little action since then. The only major attempt at sentencing reform undertaken by Ottawa has actually increased the sentences for many crimes.

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