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N.W.T. releases some prisoners over COVID-19 concerns in jails, reduces remand


YELLOWKNIFE — The Northwest Territories has released a small number of prisoners over concerns about the possible spread of COVID-19 in territorial jails.

The move came as medical professionals expressed concerns about slowing the spread of the virus in correctional institutions.

N.W.T. Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek outlined the moves her territory is making in a letter to Edmonton defence lawyer Tom Engel.

"The Department of Justice has also been actively exploring all options available to reduce the number of inmates within N.W.T. correctional facilities," she wrote in response to the lawyer's query about prisoner safety.

Wawzonek said seven inmates have been granted temporary absences, each with less than three months left on their sentences. Prisoners on intermittent sentences have also been granted temporary absences.

Wawzonek added she's working with prosecutors to ensure only people considered a threat to public safety are taken into remand.

The government and prosecutors are reviewing all prisoners being held in remand to see if any would be eligible for an interim release and bail package.

The issue of COVID-19 in jails has become increasingly pressing across the country, especially after inmates in a Quebec prison were found to have the disease. 

A group of 100 doctors and other medical professionals released a letter Tuesday calling for at least some prisoners to be released.

"We urge you to ... stop admitting people to jails and prisons unless absolutely necessary and to release as many people as possible — especially those with chronic health conditions and those age 50 and above," says the letter.

It points out at least 20 inmates in four federal institutions have tested positive for COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2020.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow him on Twitter at @row1960 

The Canadian Press