Some prisoners released as jails, law courts respond to virus

Prisoners on P.E.I. are getting out of jail temporarily, as provincial corrections officials step up efforts to keep COVID-19 at bay.

Fourteen inmates were granted temporary absence and released from the Provincial Correctional Facility at Sleepy Hollow Tuesday, according to the P.E.I. Department of Justice.

Another 25 offenders who are serving weekend sentences have had their time in jail put on hold.

The released prisoners are "nearing the end of their sentences, elderly or those with chronic health conditions," according to a written statement to CBC News from P.E.I.'s  Justice Department.

This is not a snow day. This is going to go on. — Chief Justice David Jenkins

Nancy Orr, chief judge of P.E.I.'s provincial court, supports the move.

"They have many individuals in there who would be susceptible with underlying medical issues," Judge Nancy Orr told CBC News via telephone.

"They're very concerned about it [COVID-19] getting into the jail."

Video links, ankle bracelets

Corrections officials have conducted risk assessments of prisoners who were released, according to Orr. Some of them may have to wear electronic ankle bracelets and will essentially be under "house arrest" during their time out of jail, she said.

Criminal courts continue to function, often with only a judge and lawyers present. Prisoners are appearing by video link from jail.


"The world hasn't completely come to an end as far as courts are concerned," said Crown prosecutor John Diamond.

"Police are still arresting people but there's definitely fewer people being held in custody … it's uncharted territory."

Most criminal trials are being adjourned until June, when it may be safer to conduct hearings with larger groups of people. Court officials concede that is an arbitrary date and further adjournments may be needed.

Defendants who do not yet have a lawyer are advised to phone court ahead of time for instructions, rather than attend in person.

Mental health, family violence concerns

Courts that handle family law and child protection matters are bracing for new challenges as Islanders enter self-isolation.

"A number of individuals are concerned about the possibility of increased family violence and mental health issues, those sorts of things," said Chief Justice Tracey Clements with the Supreme Court of P.E.I. "With people staying home, we're all waiting to see if we're going to see an increase in those areas."

Some child-protection matters have been resolved by telephone conference in recent days, said Clements. The P.E.I. Supreme Court is also allowing people to file some court documents and pay fees online.

P.E.I.'s top judges also see the possibility of new laws coming into effect to allow stricter enforcement of public health measures, and potentially more lawsuits as people deal with financial losses and other issues as a result of the pandemic.

"It brings on matters large and small," said David Jenkins, chief justice of the P.E.I. Court of Appeal, when reached by phone. 

"This is not a snow day. This is going to go on."

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