Dozens of B.C. prisoners were let out of jail early to reduce the spread of COVID-19, after three prisoners tested positive for the highly-contagious disease, The Tri-City News has learned.
A total of 95 inmates from nine jails — including 20 from Port Coquitlam’s North Fraser Pretrial Centre — were released between March 1 and April 2, according to the office of the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.
Last week, The Tri-City News reported that BC Corrections had been considering such a move and was in the process of conducting risk assessments for some non-violent offenders.
Since then, outbreaks of the virus have been recorded in two prisons across the province, including one inmate at the high-security Okanagan Correctional Centre in Oliver and two prisoners at the Mission Institution, a 216-bed medium-security prison run by the federal government.
Prisoners are considered a high-risk population as their often cramped living quarters can lead to the speedy transmission of the virus and underlying health issues mean many inmates could face serious symptoms should they become infected.
Many prisoners are scared, according to interviews with family members of inmantes at the Okanagan facility.
Francis Amendt, a senior and mother of an incarcerated man, said her son called her last week worried that the virus will take lives.
"He feels it's almost a death sentence for some of them that are in there. Some people are not the healthiest," she told The Tri-City News’ sister-publication Castanet. "If this starts spreading through the jails it's going to be very serious."
Of the 95 inmates released, 87 are serving intermittent sentences, according to the ministry, meaning they will spend a succession of weekends locked up rather than serving their sentence all at once, for example. The remaining eight inmates were granted a temporary absence while serving regular sentences, including two at the North Fraser facility.
In addition to the early releases from Port Coquitlam, a further 31 inmates were released from Surrey Pretrial Services Centre; 13 from the Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre; and 12 from the Nanaimo Correctional Centre.
Five were released early from the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women and two from the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre — both in Maple Ridge.
The Okanagan Correctional Centre in Oliver, the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre near Victoria, and the Prince George Regional Correctional Centre each released four inmates early.
Even before the announcement of test-positive cases in the prison population, protocols had changed in the wake of the pandemic.
Inmates coming into the facilities are given a questionnaire and have their temperatures checked. Anyone with symptoms is isolated for 14 days before being placed with the general population, according to the ministry.
Staff are prohibited from entering a facility if they are showing symptoms or have travelled outside the country.
In-person visits have been banned while contracted services, like deliveries, have been limited. Lawyers have also been encouraged to meet with their clients over the phone or by video, when possible.
As part of its ongoing reduction of the overall inmate count, the province’s 10 prisons currently hold 1,860 inmates, down from 2,184 on March 15, according to the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.
That has helped prison officials maintain physical distancing during periods where prisoners congregate, like mealtime.
— with files from Gary McKenna