NWT defence lawyers call for temporary release of prisoners during COVID-19 outbreak

Yellowknife Courthouse (CKLB File photo).

Criminal defence lawyers in the Northwest Territories have collectively written a letter to the wardens at the three main correctional centres in the Northwest Territories – calling for prisoners to be released on temporary absences due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The letter went to the wardens in Fort Smith, Hay River and Yellowknife.

The lawyers point out that the majority of the inmate population in the NWT is Indigenous.

Most of them are survivors of intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system, and the debilitating legacy of colonialism.

Many of them already suffer poor health.

Many of the inmates are to return home to small communities outside of Yellowknife.

It is important that they be able to do so now, say the lawyers, before the virus enters the jails and puts them at risk of infection, and transmission to the communities.

Most inmates at NWT correctional facilities are serving less than two years for their offences.

Here is the letter in its entirety.

March 23, 2020
John Nahanni, Warden
North Slave Correctional Centre

Warren Gillis, Warden
Fort Smith Correctional Complex

Lorraine McDonald, Warden
South Mackenzie Correctional Centre

Dear Sirs/Madam:
Re: Action needed to protect NWT inmates admist the COVID-19 pandemic
As defence lawyers practising in the Northwest Territories, we write to you out of a grave concern for the inmates – our clients – currently held at the North Slave Correctional Centre, Fort Smith Correctional Centre, and South Mackenzie Correctional Centre. These are people of all ages and genders, some of whom are serving sentences, while others are held on remand awaiting disposition of their charges.
We write following the letter of from the Canadian Prison Law Association and attachments that were sent to Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek one week ago. Since that letter, the situation has progressed significantly.
COVID-19 has now arrived in the Northwest Territories. The current directive from the Chief Public Health Officer is to “cancel all gatherings, regardless of size or number of participants,” and to practice social distancing by maintaining a distance of 2 metres between people. For inmates in custody, often housed two or three to a cell, sharing toilet and bathing facilities, as well as kitchen and dining areas, these directives are not an option. Our clients are 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. An outbreak of COVID-19 in any one of the territory’s jails could be catastrophic.
Numerous human rights organizations have urged jails to take action to protect the inmate population. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has called for Canadian institutions to “use existing legal tools to reduce the prison population through conditional releases, compassionate releases, and other discretionary measures, take humane measures to mitigate the clear danger that penal institutions can become high risk breeding grounds for virus outbreak, and release emergency protocols to the public for transparency and accountability.”1
1 https://ccla.org/coronavirus-update-the-jailed/
The frightening – and potentially deadly – prospect of widespread transmission of COVID-19 within jails already looms elsewhere in Canada, and the U.S. At the Toronto South Detention Centre in Ontario, a jail guard has tested positive for the virus.2 Concerns have been raised about the virus entering provincial and federal institutions in Ontario and Alberta, including the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre and Bowden Institution.3 In the U.S., at least 38 people have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, including at least 19 inmates and 12 staff. Another 58 other inmates – at least – are being monitored in the jail’s quarantine and contagion units.4 Reports have begun of positive tests in other facilities across facilities in the U.S.
To respond to these threats, many institutions have begun to release prisoners. In Ontario, steps are being taken to release low-risk inmates who are nearing the end of their sentence, or who are serving intermittent sentences.5 In the U.S., “hundreds” of inmates have been released in Los Angeles and Cleveland, and the mayor of New York City has announced that officials will work to release inmates held on minor charges, or who are vulnerable due to underlying health issues.6 56 inmates have been released from Rikers Island on their own recognizance.7 Jails in at least a dozen other U.S. states are sending low-level offenders, as well vulnerable offenders, home.8 A former justice minister in the U.K. has called for the release of some prisoners and the suspension of short sentences, to avoid the rapid spread of COVID-19 through overcrowded prisons.9 In New Jersey, over 1,000 prisoners are expected to be eligible for release, following a sweeping order signed yesterday by the state’s Attorney General.10
In order to protect inmates, staff, and the public at large, we are calling upon the North Slave Correctional Centre, Fort Smith Correctional Centre, and the South Mackenzie Correctional Centre to take the following actions:
 Grant temporary absences (TAs) for humanitarian reasons to prisoners serving sentences, so that they can be released:
o Immediately inform all serving prisoners of the temporary absence mechanism and facilitate a speedy application process;
2 https://torontosun.com/news/local-news/covid-19-arrives-in-toronto-jail-report, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-prison-guard-covid-19-coronavirus-1.5504263
3 https://www.rcinet.ca/en/2020/03/20/covid-19-enters-the-canadian-prison-system/
4 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/22/coronavirus-outbreak-new-york-city-jails-rikers-island
5 https://www.ottawamatters.com/local-news/low-risk-prisoners-released-to-reduce-covid-19-toll-on-ontario-jails-2185021
6 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51947802
7 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/22/coronavirus-outbreak-new-york-city-jails-rikers-island
8 https://www.wsj.com/articles/jails-release-prisoners-fearing-coronavirus-outbreak-11584885600, https://www.npr.org/2020/03/23/818581064/prisons-and-jails-change-policies-to-address-coronavirus-threat-behind-bars
9 https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/mar/21/prisons-could-see-800-deaths-from-coronavirus-without-protective-measures
10 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/nyregion/coronavirus-nj-inmates-release.html?referringSource=articleShare
o Identify those prisoners who are most vulnerable (due to age or pre-existing health conditions), and process their TA applications first;
o Apply the criteria required in processing the TA applications liberally, to favour the greatest number of releases possible.
 Grant temporary absences (TAs) for humanitarian reasons to prisoners serving intermittent sentences, so that they need not surrender themselves for weekend sentences. Offenders who have been granted permission to serve their sentences on weekends have already been entrusted to continue living in the community, and present an increased risk of introducing the virus into jails by regular entry/exit into the institutions.
 Identify all remand prisoners who are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age or pre-existing health conditions, and ensure they have contacted legal counsel about bail.
Lastly, we are calling upon each of the territory’s three institutions to do the following:
 Immediately make each institution’s plan for prevention, testing, outbreak management, and treatment of COVID-19 public. Inmates, their families, and advocates, are entitled to know what the jails are doing to protect them in this time of danger and uncertainty.
As you are aware, the inmate population in the Northwest Territories is largely Indigenous. Many, if not most, have been impacted by intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system, and the debilitating legacy of colonialism. For many, the effects of intergenerational trauma, poverty, and lack of access to health care in their formative years has meant poorer health overall, leaving many with compromised health throughout their lives as compared to other Canadians.11 The problem of over-representation of Indigenous people in Canadian institutions has been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada as one that must be remedied. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we fear that this over-representation will mean a disproportionate exposure and vulnerability to the virus.
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.
We urge you, as those responsible for the health of all inmates, to take immediate, preventative steps, before it is too late.
11 https://publichealthreviews.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40985-016-0016-5
Kate Oja – kate_oja@gov.nt.ca
Peter Harte – pjharte@northwestel.net (for all media inquiries regarding this letter please contact Peter by email or at 867-446-1468)
Jennifer Cunningham – jcunningham@northwestel.net
Ryan Clements – ryan@ryanclements.ca
Tú Pham – lawyer@tupham.com
Alanhea Vogt – alanhea_vogt@gov.nt.ca
Jacqueline Halliburn – jacqueline_halliburn@gov.nt.ca
Leslie Moore – leslie_moore@gov.nt.ca
Jessi Casebeer – jessi@dragontoner.ca
Stephanie Whitecloud-Brass – stephanie_whitecloud-brass@gov.nt.ca
Roopa Mulherkar – roopa_mulherkar@gov.nt.ca
Alyssa Peeler – alyssa_peeler@gov.nt.ca
Jay Bran – jaybranlaw@gmail.com
Baljinder Rattan – bkrattan@shaw.ca
Paul Falvo – lawyer@falvo.ca
Caroline Wawzonek
Minister of Justice
Government of the Northwest Territories
Alex Godfrey
Chief Federal Prosecutor
Northwest Territories Regional Office
Public Prosecution Service of Canada
Chief Superintendent Jamie Zettler
Yellowknife Detachment
Royal Canadian Mounted Police
c/o lenora.barrett@rcmp-grc.gc.ca

About the Author

John McFadden
John has been in the broadcast journalism industry since the 1980s. He has been a reporter in Yellowknife since 2012 and joined CKLB in January of 2018. John covers the crime and court beat as well as reporting on other areas including politics, business, entertainment and sports. He won seven national community newspaper awards while he was a journalist with Northern News Services Limited (NNSL). John worked in Ontario before coming North including stints as a TV sportscaster in Peterborough and senior news writer for CBC and CTV in downtown Toronto.