The Congress of Aboriginals Peoples (CAP) is calling on the resignation of Saskatchewan’s Minister of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety Christine Tell.
More than 100 inmates at Saskatoon Correctional Centre have tested positive for COVID-19.
“Minister Tell has fumbled the ball in her role as minster responsible to Saskatchewan correctional
facilities,” said National Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin Dec. 3. “This requires leadership with a level of foresight and compassion that is lacking in her public response to COVID-19.”
The CAP is also calling on the federal government to intervene in Saskatchewan’s provincial jail system.
They want all non-violent inmates to be released immediately. They also want testing of all inmates and staff and measures to ensure infected inmates are given separate living quarters from other inmates.
"Our people are now facing a death sentence in Saskatoon Correctional Centre due to Covid-19,” said Beaudin. "These are lives being intentionally put at risk, and is nothing short of a genocidal, colonialist policy.”
Noel Busse, spokesperson for Saskatchewan’s Minister of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety, said they can’t release a bunch of inmates.
“We cannot simply conduct a mass release of sentenced inmates. To do so would represent an injustice to victims, and a serious breach of our responsibility to maintain public safety and confidence in the justice system.”
Besides, Busse said releasing inmates early due to COVID-19 isn’t up the department of corrections.
“Corrections has no ability to release remanded inmates. Decisions around remand are arrived at by the courts after discussion between a judge, defense counsel and prosecutors. We understand Public Prosecutions has directed prosecutors to consider the current outbreak in Saskatoon when assessing bail.”
In March, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the province’s Crown prosecutors to rethink remanding some defendants who were charged but not yet convicted. Some non-violent inmates held on remand in Saskatchewan’s jails were released while waiting for trial.
Busse said the department of corrections’ ability to release sentenced inmates is limited to granting temporary absences, primarily through reintegration leave.
“There are specific public safety criteria that must be met when considering this option,” said Busse.
Earlier this week protesters – concerned for their loved ones inside - picketed in front of the Saskatoon Correctional Centre.
A group of Saskatchewan lawyers sent a letter Tuesday to Tell calling for the release of non-violent, low-risk inmates who are elderly and have compromised immune systems.
CUPE 1949, the union that represents 130 lawyers and legal staff at Legal Aid Saskatchewan, says the outbreak at Saskatoon Correctional Centre shows the volatility of the situation.
“Our jails are overcrowded with vulnerable people who have virtually no means of protecting themselves,” said Julia Quigley, President of CUPE 1949.
“Once the virus gets in, our clients are at an incredible risk.”
Busse said what is happening at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre reflects the rise in the spread of COVID-19 in the larger community.
Quigley said the majority of inmates in Saskatchewan are on remand, meaning they haven’t been convicted of any crime.
“In essence, these inmates have a bull’s eye on their backs, and yet they are legally innocent,” she said.
Quigley said that Saskatchewan remands people at twice the national average and the majority of inmates in Saskatchewan prisons are Indigenous and medically vulnerable to COVID-19.
Busse, however, disagreed.
“Saskatchewan’s remand-to-sentenced ratio, currently at approximately 56 per cent, is lower than that of most other provinces.”
Quigley said Indigenous clients will bear the brunt of the Saskatoon outbreak, and any other outbreaks if it isn’t contained.
“This virus doesn’t discriminate, but the criminal justice system does.
“We cleared the jails effectively in the first wave, without any discernible risk to the public,” added Quigley. “We need to do it again, now.”
Busse told the News-Optimist in July that no prisoners were released early from Saskatchewan jails during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Corrections and Policing put in measures to decrease the risk of COVID-19 spread. They used existing infrastructure and program space in correctional facilities to create additional separation between offenders and staff. They also restricted the movement and placement of offenders within a facility, and provided personal protective equipment to corrections staff and offenders.
Saskatoon Correctional Centre is a provincial jail run by the province of Saskatchewan.
As of Dec. 4 there are no COVID-19 positive cases in the federal penitentiaries in the province, such as the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, and Willow Cree Healing Lodge.
Story updated Dec. 4, 12:10 p.m. to include comments from Noel Busse, spokesperson for Saskatchewan’s Minister of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety.