Courage and Relief…

March 31, 2020

Toronto Star – Alex Boutilier
Trudeau ‘very concerned’ that COVID-19 could spread in federal prisons

Amid growing concerns about the vulnerability of Canada’s jails and prisons to the Covid-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Trudeau has acknowledged a concern with the potential for the virus to spread in the institutions.  Dr. Ivan Zinger, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, is urging release as the proper way to restrict the potential.  “We are very concerned about the fact that our correctional institutions could be places where — are places where there could be greater vulnerability to COVID-19,” Trudeau said, adding that the central government has been working closely with the Correctional Service of Canada.  “This is something we are digging into very carefully because we need to make sure we’re keeping everyone safe in this country.”  Related article: Los Angeles Times (US) – Associated Press  Newsom commutes prison sentences, including for murder  Related article: Washington Post – Kimberly Kindy  An explosion of coronavirus cases cripples a federal prison in Louisiana   BBC (UK- Northern Ireland)  – Julian O’Neill   Coronavirus: Prisoners to be temporarily freed in response to pandemic   Related article: The Telegraph (UK) – Charles Hymas    Up to 50 pregnant women could be released early from jail to ease crisis over coronavirus epidemic   Related article: CBC News – Julia Page   Correctional officers, inmates at Port-Cartier prison test positive for COVID-19

The Marshall Project (US) –
How Bill Barr’s COVID-19 Prisoner Release Plan Could Favor White People – Only 7 percent of black men would be deemed low-risk enough to get out using the federal prison system’s risk assessment tool, according to an analysis.

The measure to be used for Barr’s plan is the crime itself and would favour white-collar-crime and would fail those convicted of drug offences. The plan also prohibits the release of those convicted of sex offenses or violent crime, regardless of the amount of time left on the sentence. What do the critics say:  “The Trump administration keeps touting its commitment to criminal justice reform, but its attorney general is not using his discretion in any way to ensure the health and safety of people in the system—including prison guards, who are also at risk due to overcrowding,” said Sakira Cook, director of the Justice Reform Program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.”   Link to Barr’s two page memo:  Related article: N.Y. Times – Mary Bassett, Eric Gonzalez and Darren Walker       Andrew Cuomo, Stop a Coronavirus Disaster: Release People From Prison – This is a public health crisis that threatens to become a humanitarian disaster.   Related article

Marshall Project (US)
As Coronavirus Surges, Crime Declines in Some Cities – Early data suggests criminal incidents are down in several cities under stay-at-home orders.

The Marshall Project is following the crime rate to see if those released for protection against Covid-19 are causing a surge in the crime rate.  The cities involved so far are Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Contrary to some assumptions, in fact the crime rate is declining in all these cities, putting very much in question the idea that release will also involve lawlessness and a surge in crime.  “The decreases suggest that trying to contain COVID-19 is not a public safety threat in some big cities—at least for now.”  The link offers a city-by-city breakdown of the info.  The cities were not chosen but rather recently published crime rates to allow comparisons.

Evening Standard (UK) – Imogen Braddick
Northern Ireland announces early temporary release of up to 200 prisoners over coronavirus pandemic

Northern Ireland has made a determination to release about 200 prison inmates to pre-empt more serious consequences if the coronavirus gains entry to the prisons.  While there is no confirmed case yet among the inmates, there are 163 prison officers out of a work force of 1200 who are in self-quarantine.  Although the criteria is not clear for release, those who won’t be released is clear:  “Prisoners serving a life sentence, detained under the Mental Health Act, those serving a sentence for a terrorist offence and those deemed a risk are among those who will not be eligible for early release.”   Related link: BBC (UK) – Danny Shaw – “Similar measures are being considered in Scotland and a range of options, including early release and transfer to other sites, is being explored for England/Wales.”    Related article: Inquest (UK) – Over 100 signatories call on government to immediately reduce number of people in detention settings

Washington Post (US) – Editorial Board (March 29, 2020)
Arlington judges second-guess their elected prosecutor for daring to challenge the status quo

The Editorial Board sees a new and unprecedented ruling coming from the Circuit Court for Arlington County of the Virginia Court.  The four justices have required a new and reform minded attorney general, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, to file motions in writing “stating all the factual reasons when they amend indictments, decide not to prosecute a case or dismiss charges. The March 4 order is framed around the need for the efficient administration of justice and the court’s ability to properly consider issues, but there were no such requirements of the commonwealth’s attorney in the past. Indeed, legal experts characterized the standing order as unheard of, telling us they are unaware of anywhere else such requirements are in place.”  Critics say it is an effort to restrain the reform movement.

Guardian (UK) – Eric Allison and Rowena Mason
UK prisoners with flu symptoms forced to share cells with those with Covid-19

The report is very disturbing.  Inmates with confirmed Coronavirus are sharing ce3lls with those who simply have symptoms of the virus.  There is even a new term for it.  It is called “cohorting”.  The official policy of the UK Ministry of Justice is to contain the virus by sequestering in one area of the prison all with any symptom of the virus.  “Last Thursday and Friday, 12 inmates at Wandsworth prison in south-west London tested positive for the disease and were moved to a designated isolation wing…A further 40 inmates, who presented with coughs and respiratory problems, are now resident on the same landings. All the prisoners in “isolation” are sharing cells. Meals are brought to them and some report not being allowed out for showers.”

CNN – Mia Alberti and Vasco Cotovio
Portugal gives migrants and asylum-seekers full citizenship rights during coronavirus outbreak

While Canada, and particularly the US are incredibly fast in turn around migrants who present themselves at the land border and loud in insistence that health benefits are not for those looking for admission, Portugal has set an admirable and self-interest policy of welcoming all and extending health care.  “The move will “unequivocally guarantee the rights of all the foreign citizens” with applications pending with Portuguese immigration, meaning they are “in a situation of regular permanence in National Territory,” until June 30, the Portuguese Council of Ministers said on Friday.”   Related article: Journal Inquirer (Connecticut, US) – Alex Wood   Because prison isn’t a “death sentence” ACLU seeks rapid release  Related article: The Pew Foundation  –  Why Haven’t U.S. Jail Populations Fallen?

CBC News – Olivia Stefanovich
Courts scramble to modernize to keep the system working in a pandemic – Major delays expected once courts resume full service and start to work on backlog

The reporting about the activity of the courts has been somewhat spotty as well – most have closed down completely – but the link is helpful in laying out the current choices for the court personnel. “Paperwork is being replaced by electronic documents. Appearances are taking place over the phone or through video conferencing. Judges, lawyers and staff are trying to limit their time in the courthouse by working remotely from their offices or homes.”  Michael Spratt, a defense lawyer from Ottawa suggests the courts are mostly involved in catch-up: “Because of years of inaction and institutional reluctance to [modernize], the justice system is playing catch-up right now… We’re really all scrambling to try to accommodate the flow through the justice system using technology that is decades out of date.”