CUPE 1949, the union that represents around 130 lawyers and staff at Legal Aid Saskatchewan, is calling for a targeted, temporary release of some inmates to prevent further transmission of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan’s jails after a massive outbreak at the jail in Saskatoon.
Julia Quigley, President of CUPE 1949, says the recent outbreak at the correctional centre in Saskatoon illustrates just how volatile the situation is. “Our jails are overcrowded with vulnerable people who have virtually no means of protecting themselves. Once the virus gets in, our clients are at an incredible risk.”
The majority of inmates in Saskatchewan are on remand, meaning they haven’t been convicted of any crime. Saskatchewan remands people at twice the national average.
“In essence, these inmates have a bull’s eye on their backs, and yet they are legally innocent,” says Quigley.
CUPE 1949 is calling on the government to release any remanded or sentenced inmates who are vulnerable due to pre-existing health issues, and those who do not pose a risk to public safety.
A large majority of inmates are Indigenous, and many are medically vulnerable to COVID-19. “This virus doesn’t discriminate, but the criminal justice system does. Our Indigenous clients will bear the brunt of the Saskatoon outbreak, and any other outbreaks if we don’t contain it,” says Quigley.
“We cleared the jails effectively in the first wave, without any discernible risk to the public. We need to do it again, now,” she added.
An immediate response to the pandemic might have long-term benefits, as well, according to Quigley. “This is an opportunity for the government to critically examine our over-reliance on remand in this province. We must stop warehousing Indigenous people.”
Part of the solution, she says, is a properly funded Legal Aid system. “We have been stretched too thin for too long. We need lawyers, we need support staff, and we need a seat at the government table in order to advocate for Legal Aid clients.