Human rights commission urges province’s justice sector to keep prison population low amid COVID-19

Relying on vaccine rollout not enough because prison populations quickly rotate: commission

Human rights commission urges province’s justice sector to keep prison population low amid COVID-19
Ontario is dealing with grimmest stage of COVID-19 pandemic so far, commission says

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has listed 12 concrete steps for the province’s justice sector to ensure that custody numbers in correctional institutions stay low to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading and to promote the safety of Ontarians.

The commission called for the improvement of police diversion efforts, including through the issuance of weekly bulletins to apprise police services about institutional capacity numbers and other key information, the issuance of updates to inform officers regarding high institutional custody numbers and the release of guidance listing diversion options to be considered before resorting to detention.

The commission addressed four recommendations to Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General, urging the ministry to update its Crown prosecution manual for the purpose of reflecting the state of the pandemic, among others; to issue updates and directives to Crowns to emphasize the need for diversion; to instruct Crowns to maximize the use of the ministry’s programs to defer people from institutional custody and to address court delays; and to consider ways to improve access to its programs, including its Direct Accountability Program and its Bail Verification Supervision Program.

The commission then asked the Ministry of the Solicitor General to identify target capacity levels for each institution to facilitate the implementation of precaution measures; to include a highlighted alert including certain information in its bulletin covering measures for management of COVID-19 in corrections; to continue issuing temporary absence passes for those serving intermittent sentences; to consider ways to improve access to temporary absence passes while ensuring community safety; and to explore other options for medical or compassionate releases for particularly vulnerable prisoners.

The commission noted that the risks posed by high prison populations are greater for vulnerable and marginalized populations, who are disproportionately composed of groups protected by Ontario’s Human Rights Code, including people with disabilities, racialized and Indigenous peoples, single mothers, older women and recent immigrants. The commission also stressed the disproportionate impacts felt by Black persons, Indigenous persons, individuals living in shelters and those with physical and mental health disabilities and addictions.

“Focusing efforts on reducing the remand population is an effective means of getting the custody numbers down without compromising community safety,” said the commission, which noted that over 70 per cent of those held in Ontario’s correctional facilities are on remand.

“Even with major precautionary efforts, containing COVID-19 in congregate settings like correctional institutions is complex and challenging – and exponentially so when these facilities are crowded,” the commission said.

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