No prisoners were released early from Saskatchewan jails during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the province.
At the height of the pandemic, the union representing Saskatchewan’s legal aid lawyers called on federal and provincial governments to release non-violent inmates and the elderly or those with medical conditions making them vulnerable to COVID-19.
“No sentenced offenders have been released early as a result of COVID-19,” said Noel Busse, director of communications for Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice/Corrections and Policing.
Five staff at provincial correctional centres tested positive for the virus but no inmates tested positive.
“No offenders or accused in provincial correctional facilities have tested positive for COVID-19,” said Busse.
In addition, COVID-19 didn’t cause the province to alter its existing early release or reintegration program.
“No changes have been made to early release or reintegration programming for sentenced offenders as a result of COVID-19,” said Busse. “Any offenders released on reintegration programming would have been eligible for this program prior to the onset of COVID-19 in the province.”
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.
COVID-19 didn’t force the province to move any inmates from one institution to another either.
“No offenders were transferred to another facility as a result of COVID-19,” said Busse.
But COVID-19 did prompt 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.
Saskatchewan Public Prosecutions reviewed each person held in remand as they normally would, with additional consideration given to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Busse.
“Crown prosecutors are considering the concerns raised by COVID-19 when assessing remand matters (i.e. – bail) – both for new arrests and existing cases. Public safety is the primary consideration when doing those assessments.”
Just how many offenders were released due to COVID-19 while waiting for trial, however, is unknown.
“As each case is considered on an individual basis involving multiple factors, we are unable to provide numbers on how many times COVID-19 would have been taken into consideration by prosecutors when assessing individuals for potential release on bail,” said Busse.
Decisions on whether to release someone on bail are ultimately made by the presiding judge as a result of discussions between the defense, crown and judiciary, added Busse.
Relevant factors include the circumstances of the alleged offence, the circumstances of the offender, and the surrounding circumstances, all set against the criteria in the Criminal Code and case law.
Visits by the public to provincial jails are still restricted to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. All personal and professional visits are currently suspended, except in exceptional circumstances.
In March, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) suspended inmate visits from the public to all federal institutions across the country.
Visits haven’t resumed at federal penitentiaries yet but on July 3, Anne Kelly, Commissioner for CSC said they were loosening restrictions on inmates and allowing increased on-site access to correctional programs, elders and chaplains.