Society of United Professionals President Scott Travers sent the following letter to Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones on April 2, 2020.
Hon. Sylvia Jones
Ministry of the Solicitor General
25 Grosvenor St.
BY EMAIL ONLY
April 2, 2020
Dear Solicitor General Jones,
I am writing to you on behalf of the Society of United Professionals, IFPTE Local 160, which represents more than 8,000 Ontario workers, including more than 400 lawyers and legal professionals at Legal Aid Ontario and community legal clinics.
We acknowledge the challenges facing the Ministry of the Solicitor General and your efforts to make accommodations within the policing, public safety and correctional systems in order to protect the public during this COVID-19 global pandemic. We believe more can and must be done urgently to protect all Ontarians’ health and safety. The Society of United Professionals is prepared to work with your ministry as well as Legal Aid Ontario management and all other justice system stakeholders to help effect the recommendations below in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Detention centres in Ontario are at high risk of suffering outbreaks. Detention centres and prisons are recognized in public health literature as places where disease spreads quickly, both among the prison population and into society at large. Further, a 2019 report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission recognized serious overcrowding in provincial detention centres, with as many as three to five people forced to share a cell intended for one person. As you are aware, already there have been positive COVID-19 tests among justice participants in the Ontario Courts of Justice and in Ontario’s detention centres – both staff and inmates. This puts people in custody, employees and the broader public at risk. The gravity of the situation was recognized by Justice Copeland of the Superior Court of Justice on March 20, 2020 in her bail review decision in R. v. J.S. ONSC 1710:
But I take notice of the fact, based on current events around the world, and in this province, that the risks to health from this virus in a confined space with many people, like a jail, are significantly greater than if a defendant is able to self-isolate at home. The virus is clearly easily transmitted, absent strong social distancing or self-isolation, and it is clearly deadly to a significant number of people who it infects. The practical reality is that the ability to practice social distancing and self-isolation is limited, if not impossible, in an institution where inmates do not have single cells. I note that this factor concerns not only Mr. S.’s own health, but also the preservation of scarce hospital resources to treat patients. If more people are infected, those resources will be more strained.
While individual justice system actors, such as Justice Copeland, are contributing to the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, a risk this great demands immediate and comprehensive changes to the all parts of the justice system, including policing and corrections.
As Solicitor General, you have a direct responsibility for provincial detention centres’ staff and inmates, for whom physical distancing measures are currently impossible to implement. We therefore implore you to act on the following recommendations aimed at reducing the population of detention facilities, limiting points of contact wherever possible, and ensuring safety and protection for those within the walls of the provincial detention centres.
- Ensure inmates convicted of non-violent offences or deemed low-risk to reoffend, with special consideration for those elderly and/or diagnosed with medical conditions that elevate risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms, are granted immediate parole and/or temporary absence (i.e. Temporary Absence Program);
- Dedicate sufficient resources to allow prompt parole hearings for all inmates given the special and compelling circumstances of COVID-19 and the inherent risks for those incarcerated.
- Release inmates without a parole hearing whenever possible based on available information and automatically schedule parole hearings for all remaining inmates, including those serving sentences of less than six months;
- Ensure sufficient medical staff and infection prevention resources are available within institutions, police holding cells, and prisoner transit vehicles;
- Develop protocols for entry screening, personal protection measures, physical distancing, and environmental cleaning and disinfection for all buildings and vehicles with which prisoners and staff may come in contact, including disinfecting shared phones and video suites for court appearances after each use;
- Place all inmates who test positive for COVID-19 in safe medical facilities for appropriate monitoring and treatment; and
- Provide frequent, regular updates to the Ministry of the Attorney General and other stakeholders, including counsel, on the conditions in all facilities for use in judicial interim release and sentencing hearings.
The Society of United Professionals has put great thought into the recommendations in our letter; they reflect our best efforts to offer a balanced approach to public health and public safety. We want to also acknowledge the work of other justice system stakeholders who have raised similar concerns, particularly the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and the HIV/AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario (HALCO) and the Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Network (PASAN).
Society of United Professionals-represented lawyers continue to be ready and willing to support the Ministry of the Solicitor General and all stakeholders to facilitate the implementation of these recommendations as well as other steps to create a safe and healthy justice system for all.
Thank you for considering our recommendations. I would be pleased to discuss any of them with you or representatives of the Ministry of the Solicitor General. You can reach me via email at [contact information redacted].