Adrian Wyld/ The Canadian Press

As the first known outbreak of COVID-19 in a Canadian prison was announced on Monday, the country’s biggest lawyers’ group called on the federal government to identify inmates who can be safely managed in the community and release them.

Two inmates, and nine staff members at the maximum-security Port-Cartier Institution in Quebec have tested positive for COVID-19, the federal corrections service said on Monday. The inmates are being medically isolated within the prison, and the staff members are isolated at home.

At the same time, the Canadian Bar Association, representing 36,000 members of the legal community, added its voice to a rising chorus of prisoner advocacy groups urging the federal government to “consider releasing those who can be safely released” from prisons and immigration facilities.

Inmates, too, are pleading for release, whether they are in federal or provincial custody.

“A lot of us have lives, families, kids,” William Lewis, 54, a father of three, said in an interview from the Surrey Pre-Trial Detention Centre, a provincial facility in British Columbia. “Don’t look at us as a bunch of schmucks. Look at us as human beings, and people who can give back to society in a positive way.” He said he has stage 4 colon cancer and is especially vulnerable if he becomes ill with the coronavirus. He has been held eight months while awaiting trial on charges of fraud under $5,000 and impersonating a peace officer, and said he will plead guilty and ask for a sentence of time served.
 
Ontario has now released more than 1,000 inmates, according to a newsletter of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association published just over a week ago. (A government spokeswoman declined Monday to update or confirm that number, but said the province is continuing to reduce the jail population. Eligible inmates must be near the end of their sentence, at low risk to reoffend and not have committed a serious crime.) And Nova Scotia has released 79 inmates with support in the community, and expects another 50 or so to be released, amounting to roughly 45 per cent of the remand population.
 
Similar co-operation has been happening in Nova Scotia, Provincial Court Chief Judge Pamela Williams told The Globe and Mail. All 79 released individuals had either been denied bail previously, or were waiting for a bail hearing. At least one man had been charged in intimate-partner violence, she said. She said she held hearings last Saturday and Sunday to facilitate the releases, after a leading infectious diseases expert, Lisa Barrett, described to her the urgency of the matter.