Shawn Fraser says keeping non-violent, older or remanded inmates incarcerated will increase health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The only responsible thing left to do is to try and get the prison population down," said Fraser, CEO of the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan.
The society's mandate is to help people coming out of corrections and also advocate for them while they're inside.
Fraser said the organization is not asking for the release of dangerous or violent offenders. Rather, he's talking about people over 50, inmates with pre-existing health conditions and those remanded to custody (meaning they are charged but haven't been convicted.)
The biggest concern is overcrowding, said Fraser, who toured Regina Correctional Centre about a month ago.
"There's a couple of auditoriums that are used to house people, really in essence the size of a small school gymnasium that has bunks along the walls," he said.
"It's hard to imagine that if one person got sick in a place like that, that everyone wouldn't get sick."
Fraser said the concerns also extend to staff and the availability of health resources. He said the province is taking unprecedented measures to flatten the curve and suggested parallel efforts should happen for the justice system.
"We need to look at how we can get as many of those people out as quick as possible," he said. "It's not about emptying out the prisons."
He said it would be safer to have single-cell occupancy or at the very least the removal of people sleeping in common areas.
Legal Aid CEO suggests lawyers tamp down rhetoric
Meanwhile, the CEO of Legal Aid Saskatchewan has advised lawyers to tone down rhetoric around inmate releases.
CEO Craig Goebel said in an email to lawyers and Legal Aid employees in the province Monday night that the organization has received an influx of calls from counsel and clients "regarding the other 'contagion' sweeping through Correctional Institutions."
The "other contagion" he referred to was a notion that "COVID 19 is a kind of 'get out of jail card,' so that C19's potential imminence in jails allows remanded clients the chance to demand to get out en masse or that they can have another bail hearing."
"Likely this will be a recurrent theme in the next while — until we tamp it down," the email said.
A Saskatchewan lawyer and a Legal Aid employee verified the email had been sent. Goebel declined an interview request, saying he did "not have time" to respond to emailed questions.
Goebel's email also suggested lawyers had been fired by inmates after telling clients COVID-19 doesn't mean an immediate release or bail-hearing.
"We would ask that counsel who have been 'fired' under these circumstances, forebear pulling the file forward to speak to getting off the record," it said.
"It is more likely that if counsel does not withdraw from the record this momentary indiscretion by the client can be forgiven and the case carry on later."
Inmate says the opposite
"I'm not asking for a get-out-of-jail free card," said remanded inmate Benjamin Kedoin on Monday.
He's skeptical Saskatoon's Correctional Centre is pandemic-ready. There are currently two units under quarantine, "as a precaution," according to a Ministry of Justice spokesperson.
"They're saying social distancing. You can't social distance in here."
Kedoin said that, even though the inmates are locked up, there is a rotating roster of workers coming in.
"A lot of guys are stressed out, a lot of guys are worried."
He said he's remanded to custody. With the courts shut down, he's not clear when his matter might come back before the courts.
There are 290 people remanded to custody and 191 sentenced offenders at Saskatoon Correctional Centre. At Regina Correctional Centre, there are 330 people remanded to custody and 300 sentenced offenders.
Kedoin said he's currently housed in a low-security dorm with dozens of men.
"I've got guys sleeping on either side of me within a metre," he said. "This is a big petri-dish."
There is some work underway regarding COVID-19 and the justice system. Saskatchewan prosecutions are currently taking COVID-19 into consideration when reviewing inmate files to determine if they can be released on conditions. Saskatchewan prosecutions is considering COVID-19 when assessing files of those on remand.
At this time, Saskatchewan Corrections has not implemented any changes to its existing early release or reintegration programming for sentenced inmates in the province.
Fraser said he is hopeful that movement will come soon. He said many people in custody have strong family supports on the outside to help them transition. For those that don't, there are societies like the John Howard Society or the Elizabeth Fry Society that can help people after release.