First Nations group calls for resignation of Saskatchewan’s minister of corrections

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The Congress of Aboriginals Peoples (CAP) is calling on the resignation of Saskatchewan’s Minister of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety Christine Tell.

More than 100 inmates at Saskatoon Correctional Centre have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Minister Tell has fumbled the ball in her role as minster responsible to Saskatchewan correctional facilities,” said National Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin Dec. 3. “This requires leadership with a level of foresight and compassion that is lacking in her public response to COVID-19.”

The CAP is also calling on the federal government to intervene in Saskatchewan’s provincial jail system. They want all non-violent inmates to be released immediately. They also want testing of all inmates and staff and measures to ensure infected inmates are given separate living quarters from other inmates.

"Our people are now facing a death sentence in Saskatoon Correctional Centre due to Covid-19,” said Beaudin. "These are lives being intentionally put at risk, and is nothing short of a genocidal, colonialist policy.”

Saskatchewan’s Minister of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety department was contacted for comment on the situation at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre but have not responded.

Earlier this week protesters – concerned for their loved ones inside - picketed in front of the Saskatoon Correctional Centre.

A group of Saskatchewan lawyers sent a letter Tuesday to Tell calling for the release of non-violent, low-risk inmates who are elderly and have compromised immune systems.

CUPE 1949, the union that represents 130 lawyers and legal staff at Legal Aid Saskatchewan, says the outbreak at Saskatoon Correctional Centre shows the volatility of the situation.

“Our jails are overcrowded with vulnerable people who have virtually no means of protecting themselves,” said Julia Quigley, President of CUPE 1949.

“Once the virus gets in, our clients are at an incredible risk.”

Quigley said the majority of inmates in Saskatchewan are on remand, meaning they haven’t been convicted of any crime.

“In essence, these inmates have a bull’s eye on their backs, and yet they are legally innocent,” said Quigley.

She said that Saskatchewan remands people at twice the national average and the majority of inmates in Saskatchewan prisons are Indigenous and medically vulnerable to COVID-19.

“This virus doesn’t discriminate, but the criminal justice system does. Our Indigenous clients will bear the brunt of the Saskatoon outbreak, and any other outbreaks if we don’t contain it.”

“We cleared the jails effectively in the first wave, without any discernible risk to the public. We need to do it again, now,” added Quigley.

Noel Busse, director of communications for Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice/Corrections and Policing, however, told the News-Optimist in July that no prisoners were released early from Saskatchewan jails during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“No sentenced offenders have been released early as a result of COVID-19,” Busse said about the first wave of COVID-19 pandemic that hit the province.

In March, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Corrections and Policing put in measures to decrease the risk of COVID-19 spread. They used existing infrastructure and program space in correctional facilities to create additional separation between offenders and staff. They also restricted the movement and placement of offenders within a facility, and provided personal protective equipment to corrections staff and offenders.

COVID-19 also prompted the province’s Crown prosecutors to rethink remanding some defendants who were charged but not yet convicted. Some non-violent inmates held on remand in Saskatchewan’s jails were released while waiting for trial.

Saskatoon Correctional Centre is a provincial jail run by the province of Saskatchewan.

As of Dec. 4 there are no COVID-19 positive cases in the federal penitentiaries in the province, such as the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, and Willow Cree Healing Lodge.

Lisa Joy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Battlefords Regional News-Optimist