A common area in the Whitehorse Correctional Centre during a media tour in 2012. Lawyers across the country have been calling on justice officials in their jurisdictions to consider the possibility of releasing inmates from jails, where possible, in order to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak at the institutions. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)

Lawyers call for temporary accesses passes to be considered for inmates during pandemic

Justice reviewing personal circumstances for inmates

A local lawyer says he’s disappointed with the response of the Yukon government’s Department of Justice to concerns brought forward about the population at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.

While extra health and sanitary measures are in place, there have been no releases of inmates in light of the COVID-19.

“The response is disappointing,” Vincent Larochelle stated in an email correspondence.

Lawyers across the country have been calling on justice officials in their jurisdictions to consider the possibility of releasing inmates from jails, where possible, in order to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak at the institutions. Some common concerns include the close proximity inmates typically live in, which might not allow them to properly social distance (in other words, maintain at least two metres between people in order to help stop or at least slow the spread of the disease).

Justice spokesperson Fiona Azizaj explained in an email that along with a number of safeguards being put in place at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, officials are reviewing the the personal circumstances of those on remand and serving sentences.

“These reviews also consider those who may be particularly vulnerable due to their underlying health conditions or age,” she wrote.

“This proactive work is being done to ensure that these clients are being housed in the most appropriate place.

“Yukon Corrections has made concerted efforts, now and before the pandemic, to implement the principle of least restrictive measures within the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. Operationally, this means that reviews of individuals in the custodial population are being completed regularly to determine if the individual could be housed in the community for reintegration or rehabilitation purposes without compromising public safety.”

The most recent letter signed by six Yukon lawyers was sent to territorial corrections officials March 26, as a response to the efforts the Department of Justice said it was undertaking. Jennie Cunningham, one of the lawyers to sign the letters, noted there have yet to be any releases from the jail even on a Temporary Access Pass that is permitted for humanitarian reasons under the Yukon Corrections Act.

“We are hoping that Yukon Justice will decide to release as many prisoners as possible in order to make the correctional centre and the Yukon as safe as possible during this pandemic for everyone in the prison and in the Yukon,” she stated in an email.

She argued passes should be implemented now in order to lessen the number of people in the jail during the pandemic. Throughout the correspondences from lawyers, the possibility of the COVID-19 virus being spread rapidly through the jail population is highlighted along with other impacts on inmates and the need to protect human rights.

“They are worried, and they are feeling increased restrictions,” Larochelle said of clients he’s spoken to. “In a jail setting, distancing and isolation will most probably come at the price of further and increased restrictions on liberty, which in turn cause serious mental health issues.”

Cunningham said she’s spoken to a client at WCC who highlighted concerns about what they argued was a slow response to implementing health and safety protocols around COVID-19 at the jail.

“And of course, a prisoner has no choice to leave or power to determine how to social distance or work with the requests of Yukon Public Health Officials,” she said. “With little sense of any control — people are very, very anxious about their risk of exposure.”

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

Criminal JusticeWhitehorse Correctional CentreYukon justice department

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