The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) is calling on the federal government to create a task force to begin the process of releasing low-risk, non-violent Indigenous inmates from federal institutions.
CAP wants the government to support a call by NDP MP Jack Harris, Critic for Public Safety, for the creation of a task force to look at releasing these types of inmates to protect not only the inmate population but prison staff and communities from COVID-19.
“These measures will take pressure off staff and administration within institutions, as well as frontline workers ensuring the safety of everyone involved,” said CAP Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin in an interview from his office in Ottawa.
Beaudin said more than 30 per cent of inmates are Indigenous and the federal government isn’t acting fast enough during COVID-19 and Indigenous inmates have become “political prisoners.”
He said there are instances where low-risk and non-violent offenders have been denied release without strong justification.
“Despite options existing for treatment-based and community release, and the lack of resources for addictions treatment in penitentiaries, alternative options were not provided,” said Beaudin. “Programs and services such as mental health and Elders have been cancelled due to COVID-19, including meetings with chaplains and mental health support,” he added.
"Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe says if a prisoner is held for excessive periods of time, denied equal treatment, or subjected to unfair proceedings, and it is motivated by politics, that person is a political prisoner,” said Beaudin. “Politics is absolutely motivating government to not giving Indigenous prisoners, and especially non-Status and off-reserve Indigenous prisoners equal treatment in Canada.”
Beaudin said the federal government could immediately begin hearings to release Indigenous inmates for humanitarian and compassionate grounds under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.
“There's no reason why they cannot step up to the plate and use federal powers to do right by our people and release low-risk inmates now,” said Beaudin “It's very clear our people who have treaty, section 35 and section 91(24) rights are political prisoners.”
Mary-Liz Power,press secretary, Office of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, said their greatest responsibility is keeping Canadians safe.
“That includes all correctional staff, inmates and the Canadian public,” she said in an email May 8. “We know the unique risks inherent to prisons, and the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) continues to work with the Public Health Agency of Canada to ensure that appropriate measures are taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in federal institutions.
“As this pandemic continues to evolve, we have been clear that our response will as well,” she added. “Above all, CSC and PBC are working to ensure that, for offenders who are released, not only will public safety be maintained, but they will have a safe, secure and supportive environment to go to. Having a safe place to live, finding stable employment and being able to access social services are more challenging during the pandemic, so finding solutions that balance public safety with responsible risk management is critical.”
Likewise, Tricomi Christina, spokesperson for Correctional Service Canada (CSC) said the health and safety of their employees and offenders is their top priority as they navigate this public health situation.
“We have an emergency preparedness and response framework that addresses planning for outbreaks, medical responses, equipment requirements, and protocols,” said Tricomi. “We have dedicated health services on site with the equipment needed to monitor and treat inmates, including the necessary personal protective equipment.”
Tricomi said the CSC and the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) are working collaboratively to facilitate the safe release of federal inmates into the community.
“In response to the pandemic, CSC has been proactively reviewing eligible non-violent lower risk inmates and referring them to the PBC for consideration, including those with underlying medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19,” said Tricomi.
A number of considerations go into release decision-making with public safety being the paramount consideration, she said.
“CSC and PBC have worked to streamline the case preparation process for offenders.”
CSC is also working with the PBC to identify offenders already released in the community and those who may become eligible for release, who can reside in a family home, as opposed to a community residential facility, when it is a safe and viable option, said Tricomi.
CSC doesn’t’ have specific data on releases to COVID-19 because a variety of considerations go into release decisions, said Tricomi.
“On average, 600 offenders are released a month. This occurs, through parole, statutory release, or expiration of sentence. Since the beginning of March 2020, the federal custody population has declined by 429 inmates, more than the average size of two minimum-security facilities. This reduction is the result of fewer admissions from the provinces and territories coupled with continued releases into the community. In March 2020, there were 627 federal inmates released across Canada and in the month of April, 566 inmates were released from custody nationally.”
Since the beginning of March 2020, the federal custody population has declined by more than 400, according to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.
“This downward trend in the overall federal inmate population is expected to continue over the coming months,” said Power.
The Parole Board of Canada (PBC) is an arms-length agency of the Government of Canada, she added.
“Parole decisions consider all relevant and available information, including the unique circumstances of each offender, which may include health-related factors. No single factor is ever determinative in the PBC’s decision-making.”
Power said during the COVID-19 pandemic, the PBC has streamlined a number of its policies and processes in response to an increase of parole review submissions, and assist the CSC and community partners.
“The number of release reviews conducted by the PBC has increased by more than 14 per cent when compared to last year.”
As of May 8, 2020, 120 employees who work in federal institutions tested positive for COVID-19, of these 83 have recovered. As of May 7, 2020, there are 119 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates in four out of the 43 institutions. Out of a total of 325 inmates that tested positive since the beginning of this pandemic, 204 of them have now fully recovered.
Earlier this year Ivan Zinger, Canada’s prison watchdog, said Indigenous inmates are disproportionately classified and placed in maximum-security institutions.