COVID-19 could justify releasing prisoners, Quebec court rules

Quebec’s Superior Court has agreed, at least to an extent, with a prisoner’s argument that COVID-19 poses such a serious health risk in jail that inmates can invoke this as a reason to be released.

In a ruling on Friday, Justice Guy Cournoyer found that the risks of COVID could be weighed in decisions on whether to release inmates, but that it woudn’t automatically outweigh other factors.

“No one should minimze the concerns or the risks associated with COVID-19 in jail,” he said in his ruling. “The risks are real.”

Inside the Bordeaux provincial prison, more than 20 prisoners have tested positive for the coronavirus, along with 15 employees.

That has created a virtual lockdown, four prisoners told CTV.

“We’re locked up 24 hours a day,” said one. Prisoners “don’t make calls, they don’t take showers, they don’t have anything to eat. They don’t have books to read.”

The four prisoners confirmed that most in the prison are refusing the food it provides because kitchen staffers tested positive and they’re trying to protect themselves. 

Hot water was cut off after some vandalism by exasperated detainees, and there is no protective equipment. 

“We don’t have gloves, we don’t have nothing,” one man said. “No disinfectant, no face masks.”

In the court case, a man named Johnny Samuel Videz-Rauda argued that he should be released on bail while he awaits trial on drug charges. He argued that he could contract COVID-19 and the situation was dangerous to his health. 

A director of the Bordeaux prison testified that testing of its inmates only began last week.

Justice Cournoyer said he found the health risks serious and worth considering, but in this particular man’s cases, his criminal record was troubling enough that he shouldn’t get bail.

Essentially “it is not the only factor, or the factor that should take precedence over others,” when deciding if there’s a need to detain an individual or keep him in detention, explained Crown prosecutor Jean-Christophe Ardeneus after the ruling.

The defence lawyer, Richard Tawil, said Justice Cournoyer did make it clear, however, that the problematic conditions “could justify a release,” even if not in this case.

On Thursday, deputy premier Genevieve Guilbault announced that some prisoners in Quebec jails may be released early for medical reasons, but only if they haven’t committed a violent crime, have fewer than 30 days left in their terms and have permission for a release on medical grounds.

"It will reduce the number of inmates and it will therefore help our correctional officers apply the rules of physical distancing,” she said.

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