Potential early release of federal prisoners due to COVID-19: Public safety at risk without input from frontline

Frontline rehabilitative staff must help shape protocols if early releases from federal penitentiaries is to happen safely.

The Union of Safety and Justice Employees (USJE) is insisting that its key representatives have significant and ongoing input into any protocols if offenders are to be released safely. 

This follows the appeal by The Hon. Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, to the Correctional Service of Canada and Parole Board of Canada in order to expedite the release of federal offenders where appropriate.

USJE’s members include over 2,000 federal Parole Officers, Parole Supervisors, Managers of Assessment and Intervention, and Managers of Community Correctional Centres (CCC), who oversee the development of offender release plans, and assess and manage the risk of re-offending once an offender is back in the community.

USJE President Stan Stapleton said that while he appreciates the challenges Corrections is facing to keep COVID-19 from affecting prison populations, “we have real concerns that affected Parole Officers may be under enormous pressure to make recommendations for release in cases where they are not confident about the capacity of an offender to cope on the outside. Risk analysis must continue to be thorough and rigorous.”

“While we absolutely recognize that federal prison environments are increasingly dangerous for staff and offenders given COVID-19, any plan which releases hundreds of offenders into communities across the country, is, frankly, quite fraught with all kinds of risk to offenders and the community,” Stapleton said.

Without a realistic plan for where these offenders will reside and how they will actually manage, early release options will be extremely limited.This is particularly the case for many Indigenous offenders whose communities will confront immense challenges in re-integrating them, in urban and rural Canada.

Consequently, the conditions under which offenders are recommended for early release must be carried out with significant and ongoing input from USJE’s key representatives to ensure there is sufficient risk analysis and available resources.

“There are currently not enough staff in federal penitentiaries or community parole offices to do this risk analysis throughout the country, given how overworked federal Parole Officers and others in Case Management Teams have been for years,” Stapleton added.

Expediting the early release of hundreds of federal offenders is a complex exercise that involves countless hours and comprehensive risk assessments by Case Management Teams, including federal Parole Officers working in mostly minimum- and medium-security federal prison as well as community Parole Officers, Parole Officer Supervisors, Managers of Intervention and Assessment, and hundreds of administrative staff.

Together, these teams ensure each offender has a comprehensive release plan so that if an offender is granted parole by the Parole Board of Canada, they can safely transition to a stable environment where their risk of re-offending is low and that risk can be constantly monitored. 

Employees of the Parole Board of Canada who support the preparation of offender cases that will be considered for release will also need to invest hundreds of additional hours to get everything ready for review by Parole Board Members under extreme time pressure. 

Immediate measures required for federal penitentiaries

USJE shares the very real concern that the spread of COVID-19 is not being contained in federal institutions as the positive tests at Port-Cartier Institution in Quebec and other federal penitentiaries have revealed.

Apart from hospitals and nursing homes, federal correctional facilities are some of our country’s most densely populated institutions right now. Despite this, the screening process for employees who show up to work in federal penitentiaries is inadequate.

Further, penitentiaries have little to no capacity to provide adequate isolation or health care to any offender who shows symptoms of COVID-19.

Even if the federal prison population is modestly reduced, it will be insufficient to reduce the risk to the thousands of remaining offenders and employees who reside or work in federal penitentiaries. Most medium- and maximum-security penitentiaries have between 400 and 800 inmates living in close quarters.

USJE is therefore appealing to Corrections to take the following actions in federal penitentiaries: 

  1. Immediately halt all non-essential visits to federal penitentiaries, including contractors, except in emergencies.
  2. Suspend all in-person staff programs for high-needs offenders residing in Structured Intervention Units. Structured Intervention Units have replaced solitary confinement in federal penitentiaries. Because of the risk of violence to themselves or others, these offenders are segregated from the general offender population. Virtual solutions need to be explored. 
  3. Provide all staff transferring sick offenders to hospital with personal protection equipment (PPE) to reduce the risk of transmission between offenders and transport staff, who are required to return to work and continue to interact with their colleagues. 
  4. Ensure priority testing of all federal Corrections staff and offenders. This is not well established despite the protocols public health agencies across the country are implementing. 
  5. Allow as many Administrative and Case Management staff as possible to work from home. 
  6. Strengthen the active COVID-19 screening process for all incoming employees to federal penitentiaries by introducing temperature testing. This will ensure no one who is even mildly symptomatic is entering an institution.
  7. Test every offender approved for release by the Parole Board of Canada. 

USJE understands that there is no easy solution to slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Canada’s federal penitentiaries. These are complex institutions that house often violent and high-needs offenders.However, there are some practical steps that Corrections can take to prevent a tough situation from becoming disastrous.