B.C. is looking at potentially releasing some sentenced non-violent offenders from their correctional institutions due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General says B.C. Corrections is currently conducting risk assessments for consideration for early release.

“The assessment and ultimate determination on release considers criminal history, sentence length, offence type, and any other relevant information, including risk to public safety,” the ministry said to CHEK News.

“B.C. Corrections does not have discretion to proactively release people who are remanded in custody pending outstanding court matters. This discretion rests with the courts… B.C. Corrections does have the authority to proactively release individuals serving intermittent sentences on a temporary absence, where it is considered appropriate and safe to do so.”

They add the determination for potential release includes whether the individual released would have the necessary supports in place, whether family, community, or on-reserve, given 30 per cent of B.C.’s inmate population is Indigenous.

The push for the releases is due to the fact that at federal and provincial correctional facilities, social distancing to avoid COVID-19 is nearly impossible.

Martha Paynter is a registered nurse and doctoral candidate at Dalhousie University. Her research looks at prisoners’ health.

“You’re so close together, right and things will simply spread, and your contained, you’re stuck close together, the opposite of what we’ve been instructed to do,” she said.

“Prisoners are in general quite unhealthy, they deal with these underlying health conditions that we hear about. Prisoners in Canada have extraordinarily high rates of infectious disease. You have limited access to sanitation supplies. The first action is obviously to decarcerate, decarcerate, decarcerate. We need to be reducing this population.”

Canada wide calls are asking for inmates to be released. Particularly around non-violent offenders.

Canadian Senator Kim Pate says that compassionate releases should be granted. Corrections Canada says they are considering the idea.

Paynter says it’s not just about the prisoners.

“Employees are actually already sick, they are afraid of getting sick, they are afraid of the dangerous conditions in their workplace,” she said.

B.C.’s Government and Service Employees’ Union says their members are worried.

“Our members are expressing concerns around how they are going to keep themselves safe,” said BCGEU president Stephanie Smith.

“And how they are going to keep themselves safe, and also the safety of the inmates they are working with.”

But talks about changes are underway.

“I have heard there are some inmate who may be experiencing symptoms. So we are asking the corrections branch and each individual jail to work with us on an infection response. But before that even happens we are working closely with the branch to put in as many preventative measures as we can”

Julian Kolsut