Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer fears crime will spike in the city and local systems will be overburdened if prisoners are released early to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in jails.
Veer sent a letter to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair arguing against the premature release of some offenders.
Blair has asked the heads of the Parole Board of Canada and the Correctional Service of Canada to consider options to make prisons safer during the viral outbreak, including the early release of certain offenders to prevent jails from becoming epicentres. No decisions have yet been made.
Veer said Red Deer is already in a “state of local emergency,” with citizens dealing with many hardships related to the virus threat.
“Our citizens should not have to deal with increasing safety risks with the early release of convicted criminals into our community and region.”
The mayor added she understands the need to prevent viral spread, but maintained that early prison releases are not “in the safety interest of all…
“The City of Red Deer is dealing with a rise in property crime… the early release of prisoners will elevate public safety fears in our community and will affect the ability of our local RCMP and other emergency services providers to respond during this pandemic.”
However, Moms Stop the Harm co-founder Petra Schulz noted some prisoners in remand haven’t even gone to trial yet.
Schulz believes it’s necessary to prevent the chaos and fatalities that could result if prisons become viral hot spots.
While her group does not support an “open the gates” approach to prisoner releases, Moms Stop the Harm advocates letting out some low-risk offenders who are approaching the end of their sentences, to stop a rampant, cruise-ship like viral outbreak from jeopardizing inmates and guards.
“If prison guards refused to go to work, that could cause real mayhem,” said Schulz.
But the City of Red Deer’s emergency management co-ordinator, Karen Mann, sent her own letter to Blair, stating she fears additional public safety risks from early releases from Bowden and Drumheller medium-security prisons.
Mann is concerned about further overburdening police, ambulance, hospital, social service and shelter resources during an already straining time that includes program reductions.
She also cited the additional stress on women and children of prisoners returning to home situations who were not anticipating their early release.
“We respect … ensuring prisoner safety and upholding human rights, (but) need to be as mindful … of the safety of all Red Deerians,” writes Mann to the minister.
Schulz wants City of Red Deer officials to consider that prisoners have parents, partners and children who are “worried sick” about their well-being at a time when even prison visits have been curtailed.
She feels measures, such as ankle cuff monitors, can be used to keep track of prisoners in the community.
Veer suggested constructing secondary sites to hold prisoners, or self-isolation units within the institutions to allow for physical distancing.