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Release non-violent inmates in wake of COVID-19 pandemic, St. John's area advocates say

A sign outside Her Majesty's Penitentiary.
A sign outside Her Majesty's Penitentiary. - Glen Whiffen

Her Majesty’s Penitentiary has no way to contain coronavirus, says one local lawyer, and when it hits, it will go 'rampant through the place like an avalanche'

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

A stay in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) is no pleasure cruise, but as far as the ability to contain the coronavirus, it might as well be the Diamond Princess, says the girlfriend of a current inmate.

“Except way dirtier,” adds the woman, who asked not to be named.

Her boyfriend is on remand awaiting trial, and she’s worried that she hasn’t heard much from government or prison officials on measures being taken to protect him and other inmates from the spread of the coronavirus.

Not that she thinks any measures would really help.

“We’re all being told about social distancing and all that, but jail literally means you don’t have the right to distance yourself from anybody,” the woman told The Telegram. “How do they expect inmates to do that, especially when they are sharing a cell and a sink and a toilet? It’s like no one cares about them because they’re in jail, but if the coronavirus hits inside HMP, it’s going to hit hard because there’s no way to stop it.”



As the number of cases of COVID-19 grows in the province — having increased from one to three presumptive cases over the past few days, all waiting to be confirmed by a secondary test — the provincial government continues to update the measures it’s taking to contain the spread and protect residents. Schools have been closed, and Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, chief medical officer of health, is urging all public facilities to be closed or reduced to allow small groups of people only.

“Our biggest worry is mass gatherings,” she said Tuesday.

What is HMP if not a mass gathering, asks local lawyer Bob Buckingham.

Buckingham, like others across the country, is calling on the government to clear inmates out of HMP for the time being, saying it comes down to an issue of human rights.

A cruise ship? More like a cruise missile loaded with the virus, he says.

“If it hits one person in there, it’s going to go rampant through the place like an avalanche,” Buckingham told The Telegram. “They have no mechanism for containing it. No mechanism for checking people who are leaving and who might breach and go back in, or people who are coming in. There’s nothing there with respect to how to deal with it. That’s why I’ve called for preventative decarceration.”

Bob Buckingham. - SaltWire File Photo
Bob Buckingham. - SaltWire File Photo

That means the release of those who are incarcerated for a non-violent offence, he says.

The province’s courts have adopted a new protocol in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Until further notice, all Supreme Court and Court of Appeal matters will go ahead as planned — with the exception of jury trials — but will be closed to the public. In provincial court, the only cases being dealt with are those where an accused is in custody. For those not in custody with a matter scheduled between March 16 and 22, it has been postponed for 10 weeks.

Buckingham believes judges, Crown prosecutors and Legal Aid lawyers freed up by the reduced court schedule should be assigned to do bail hearings.

“What I’m suggesting, first of all, is with respect to people who are waiting for bail, that they have bail hearings immediately and the people who have been denied bail have bail reviews immediately,” he says. “The purpose would be to have people out of the institutions on bail.”

For those doing weekend sentences, Buckingham proposes a temporary respite on humanitarian or medical grounds, as has been done in Ontario. He suggests release for prisoners in the province who are more than 50 years old, are seriously immune-compromised, are pregnant or who serve as primary support for small children.

For those who must remain in jail, Buckingham is suggesting free access to phones calls to their loved ones, instead of having to pay for calling cards or use collect calling, which is the case right now.

Buckingham’s suggestions mirror that of the Canadian Prison Law Association and the East Coast Prison Justice Society, which are calling on provincial governments to take action.

Alberta lawyer Tom Engel, chair of the association, told The Telegram it’s not just a prison issue, it’s an issue of public health. He points to the health of correctional staff, sheriffs, court staff and inmates serving intermittent sentences who go back and forth between the jail and the community.

“Lots of inmates are double bunked in a cell with an open toilet,” he says. “Many of them aren’t given the amenities to handwash for 20 seconds. Guards are serving meal trays and taking them away. It’s a recipe for disaster and I don’t know why governments aren’t taking this more seriously.”

If an inmate is believed to have contracted the coronavirus, what happens then, Engel asks. Where are they isolated, and do you isolate everyone who has come in contact with them?

“That could be the whole prison, including staff,” he says.



Buckingham says he has written to various provincial government and court officials and has gotten no response, apart from a letter he considers “platitudes.”

In it, a representative of the Department of Justice and Public Safety said the province’s correctional facilities have implemented a modified version of its previously developed influenza pandemic plan, which will continue to be modified as advised by public-health officials.

The department has publicly advised it has also provided kits with protective eyewear, masks and gloves, and extra hand sanitizer at locations in prisons and lockups, and inmates are attending information sessions about the coronavirus and proper handwashing. Dedicated quarantine areas have been established for inmates presenting with COVID-19 symptoms, the department said.

Government has also banned visitors to HMP and other prisons in the province for the time being.

Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons has agreed to an interview with The Telegram Wednesday.

“I’m interested to know if they will step it up,” says the woman whose partner is in HMP. “And I hope they realize that it’s not only physical health we’re talking about here. It’s psychology, too. For inmates and the people out here, because we’re worried about them.”

Twitter: @tara_bradbury | Facebook: @telegramtara


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