Justice response to legal counsel on protection of inmates during COVID-19 emergency

The following is a copy of the letter forwarded to NWT defence counsel on March 26, 2020 from Kim Schofield, Assistant Deputy Minister, Solicitor General, Department of Justice in response to a call to action to protect NWT inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

March 26, 2020

Dear Sirs/Madams:

Re: Action needed to protect NWT inmates amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

I am writing in response to your letter of March 23, 2020 addressed to the Wardens of the three correctional facilities in the Northwest Territories. I would like to thank each of you for your shared concern for the health and safety of inmates during these exceptional times brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before addressing the requested actions outlined in your letter, I would like to first provide you with an overview of the measures that the Corrections Service has taken in our correctional facilities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These measures have been made in consultation with health officials and adopt best practices from other jurisdictions. They are also being reassessed on an ongoing basis.

The Department of Justice believes that the Corrections Service has developed a strong plan to ensure the safety and wellbeing of inmates and staff. This plan builds on existing procedures that are in place for epidemics and outbreaks that could occur in facilities at any time. In fact, the COVID-19 principles of isolation and good health practices are similar to the response to other respiratory type illnesses that the Corrections Service has previously prepared for such as H1N1. Corrections management is continually monitoring the status of COVID-19 in the NWT, and is reviewing existing policies on epidemics and outbreaks to ensure updates are being completed in a timely manner and distributed to staff as required. All Corrections Officers have been requested to review procedures on the proper protocols for working with infectious diseases. 

The present inmate count in each Correctional facility allows the housing of one inmate per cell. Social distancing is being promoted throughout each facility. Health Services staff are continually reaching out to inmates and staff to reinforce messaging around universal precautions including hand washing, limiting contact with surfaces, practicing social distancing, etc. In addition, COVID-19 specific signage has been placed in all facilities for both inmates and staff.

The Corrections Service has implemented a health screening questionnaire (attached) to check inmates upon entry into a Correctional facility. This questionnaire includes screening for symptoms related to COVID-19. In the event an inmate is symptomatic they will be isolated from other inmates and health staff will contact Public Health to arrange testing. No inmate will be permitted to enter the general population until they are medically cleared to do so.

If an inmate already in general population shows COVID-19 symptoms the Corrections Service will follow the same process as outlined for the intake of new inmates. If a situation occurs where an inmate is showing new symptoms, the Corrections Service will hold the inmate exhibiting symptoms in separate areas away from the general population.

Additional procedures include giving the identified inmate a procedural mask to wear; requiring staff to wear gloves, gown, protective glasses and a procedural mask; putting the inmate on contact and droplet precautions and placing them in their own cell away from other inmates; and ensuring that health services staff consult with Public Health on testing and inmate wellness procedures. Any symptomatic inmate will remain on contact and droplet precautions until such time as they are medically cleared to move back into general population. Any inmate in medical distress would be moved to a hospital for their care. In such a case, the Corrections Service will work with the Department of Health and Social Services to provide timely care.

With respect to the health and safety of Corrections staff, frequent communications are being sent out to staff on Corrections procedures including enhancing inmate assessment upon intake and monitoring inmates for COVID-19 related symptoms. Regular meetings are held with staff on the importance of using universal precautions, enhancing cleaning of high contact surfaces, and reinforcing safe work practices. Corrections Officers are required to wear personal protective equipment contingent on the level of need. As an example, if an inmate is not symptomatic upon intake an Officer is only required to wear gloves. If an inmate is symptomatic, the Officer would be required to wear gloves, a gown and a procedural mask. Currently each facility has sufficient supplies available to meet both inmate and staff personal protective equipment requirements.

With respect to the specific actions that you have requested of the Corrections Service, I provide the following responses:

Grant temporary absences (TAs) for humanitarian reasons to prisoners serving sentences, so that they can be released.

The Department of Justice has been actively exploring all options available to reduce the number of inmates within NWT correctional facilities without putting the public at risk. This includes investigating opportunities for granting temporary absences for releasing inmates on a case by case, and risk assessed basis.

I can confirm that the Corrections Service has been reviewing all sentenced inmates with one month remaining on their sentence, and will be granting temporary absences to those individuals who do not pose a public safety risk and would have appropriate support networks following their release. In the coming days a similar review will be expanded to include inmates with less than three months remaining on their sentences.

On a related matter, the Department of Justice has also been working with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, the Courts, defence lawyers and other partners in the justice system to reduce the number of people who may be coming into Corrections facilities through the remand process. This work seeks to ensure that only people who are a risk to public safety are being remanded in our facilities.

Grant temporary absences (TAs) for humanitarian reasons to prisoners serving intermittent sentences, so that they need not surrender themselves for weekend sentences.

I can confirm that the Corrections Service has granted temporary absences for all intermittent sentenced inmates.

Identify all remand prisoners who are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age or pre-existing health conditions, and ensure they have contacted legal counsel about bail.

I can confirm that the Department of Justice is actively working with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to support the review of all remanded offenders currently in NWT correctional facilities to identify remanded accused who may be candidates for a judicial interim release. The individuals identified through this process would need to consent to taking such an approach and provide a reasonable bail plan in consultation with their legal counsel, but the ultimate approval for a judicial interim release would of course remain with the Court.

Immediately make each institution’s plan for prevention, testing, outbreak management, and treatment of COVID-19 public.

We agree that inmates, their families, and their advocates need to have confidence that the Corrections Service is taking every precaution possible to ensure the health and safety of individuals in their care in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Justice will take the necessary steps to ensure that the information contained in this letter is made publicly available by posting this letter on the Departmental website along with the recently added Questions and Answers document.

Once again, thank you for sharing your concerns for the health and safety of inmates in NWT correctional facilities.


Kim Schofield

Assistant Deputy Minister

Solicitor General

c. The Honourable Caroline Wawzonek, Minister of Justice

Ms. Charlene Doolittle, Deputy Minister of Justice

Mr. Alex Godfrey, Chief Federal Prosecutor, Public Prosecution Service of Canada

Mr. Jamie Zettler,,Chief Superintendent RCMP G Division

Mr. Blair VanMetre, Director, Corrections Service

Mr. John Nahanni, Warden, North Slave Correctional Complex

Mr. Warren Gillis, Warden, Fort Smith Correctional Complex

Ms. Lorraine McDonald, Warden, South Mackenzie Correctional Centre

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