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Ontario Human Rights Commission warns of prison overcrowding amid third wave of pandemic

Wednesday, May 12, 2021 @ 11:35 AM | By John Schofield

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) is urging justice sector participants across the province to work together to reduce prison custody numbers as the third wave of COVID-19 rages, jeopardizing the lives of vulnerable inmates and correctional officers in congregate settings.

“To keep Ontario’s people and communities safe, it is critical to once again make sure the custody numbers come down and stay down,” said a May 11 statement from the OHRC.

During the first wave of the pandemic last year, the statement said, the police, courts, correctional staff and the government successfully worked together to reduce Ontario’s prison population by about 30 per cent. But custody numbers have been rising again for months, it noted, and are approaching pre-pandemic levels.

“The OHRC has consulted widely with various correctional and justice stakeholders to identify concrete actions that could help,” said the statement. “We are not suggesting that tremendous efforts are not already being made but, instead, acknowledging the complexity and challenge of managing COVID-19 in congregate settings like correctional institutions.”

There have been more than 16 COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario correctional institutions since December, said the OHRC. Taking steps to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons will help protect the wider community, it added.

More than 70 per cent of people held in Ontario’s correctional facilities are on remand, but releasing the remand population would pose no threat to community safety, said the statement, which pointed to several U.S. studies that found that reducing the remand population did not increase criminal activity.

Organizations such as the Prison Transparency Project and the John Howard Society have also called for the release of non-violent inmates to protect their health during the pandemic.

The OHRC recommended several specific measures that justice sector participants should take now to begin reducing the jail population, starting with steps by the Ministry of the Solicitor General to promote police diversion efforts. Among other things, the Ministry should issue weekly All Chiefs Bulletins to provide police services with updated information about institutional capacity numbers.

The OHRC also made detailed recommendations aimed at the Ministry of the Attorney General, including directing “Crowns to exercise their discretion in light of the exceptional circumstances created by the pandemic to pursue and expeditiously support non-custodial options wherever possible.”

In an e-mailed statement, Stephen Warner, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, said that the institutional capacity across all Ontario correctional facilities currently stands at a six-month average of 81.8 per cent. He added that the Ministry has worked with justice system partners since the early days of the pandemic to reduce the number of individuals in custody through the expanded use of temporary absence passes.

“Balancing public health and public safety considerations and mitigating associated risks continues to be a priority for all justice partners, and informs our decision making as the pandemic continues to evolve,” said Warner. “We continue to evaluate all measures to ensure the continued modernization of Ontario’s correctional facilities, including lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

He said the government is legally responsible for upholding court orders and does not direct or interfere with police operational decisions in the use of diversion options.

“The decision to grant or deny bail is complex and based on the specific circumstances of each case,” he added.

Each provincial correctional facility has an individualized pandemic plan prepared in consultation with local public health partners, noted Warner. In response to the pandemic, he said, the Ministry has implemented procedures at Ontario correctional facilities aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, including screening and testing all newly admitted inmates (with their consent), housing all newly admitted inmates in a separate area from the general population for 14 days, providing masks to inmates if required, providing personal protective equipment to all staff and increased cleaning measures.

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