TIMMINS -- The Cochrane District Social Services Administration Board, fears the province’s move to allow the early release of some low-risk inmates due to COVID-19 may put undue pressure on homeless shelters.

One of Timmins' shelters, the Living Space, is funded by the Cochrane DSSAB.

The social service board's Chief Administrative Officer, Brian Marks, said it has already taken on clients recently released from prison, unrelated to the Ontario Solicitor General’s announcement on March 20.

But Marks said once that plan starts rolling out, shelters won’t be able to handle the load.

"Things do spread in prisons,” said Marks, who is also board chair of Living Space. "Unfortunately, many of these people are released to environments where it’s even easier to spread — like a shelter system, where people sleep next to each other."

Brian Marks, CAO at Cochrane DSSAB

(Brian Marks, CAO at Cochrane DSSAB, believes releasing more inmates could mean more pressure on homeless shelters. Mar. 30/20 Sergio Arangio/CTV Northern Ontario) 

Policy change for early release

The Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General oversees the provincial correctional system.

It announced that it prisons will be able to expand their Temporary Absence Program to allow low-risk inmates time in public for longer than 72 hours. For inmates nearing the end of their sentence, that would mean an early release.

Solicitor General spokesperson Brent Ross told CTV News in an email that Ontario prisons have not yet released inmates under that change and that the ministry is currently implementing it.

"Inmates chosen must be near the end of their sentences and be considered a low-risk to reoffend," Ross said. "Inmates who have been convicted of serious crimes, such as violent crimes or crimes involving guns, would not be considered for early release."

The ministry also noted that inmates are educated on COVID-19 prevention while in custody, including keeping living areas clean and through signs posted throughout each institution.

Risk of homelessness post-release

John Howard Society of Toronto says research has established that people experiencing homelessness have an increased risk of ending up in jail, and being in prison increases a person's risk of being homeless.

A 2010 report from the John Howard Society of Toronto found that 44.6 per cent of prisoners are homeless or at risk of homelessness upon discharge.

For Marks, part of the issue is a historic lack of proper discharge planning for housing-insecure inmates, which he said is "not ideal on the best of days" and often results in an increase at shelters.

A 2009 report on discharge planning in Canada interviewed homeless released inmates in Ontario and B.C., of which 29 per cent reported meeting with correctional staff about a release plan. It also interviewed those who were either homeless, housed or in precarious housing, with 80 per cent reporting difficulty finding housing after being released.

Timmins Living Space homeless shelter

(Brian Marks is board chair of Living Space, and said some released inmates go straight to shelters due to lack of discharge planning. Mar 30/20 Sergio Arangio/CTV Northern Ontario) 

While it is an issue without COVID-19 in the mix, Marks says better communication between all levels government is especially critical during this pandemic.

"We would have been able to add some insight or at least prepare for individuals who are being released early and had no place to live because that just puts everybody at risk," Marks said.

"At the end of the day, everybody gets to walk away, except for the municipalities."

Lawyers advocating for inmates

Advocates across the country have called on federal and provincial officials to release vulnerable and non-violent inmates to limit the spread of the pandemic.

Timmins defence lawyer William VanBridger said the move in Ontario is a good one, particularly in northern Ontario, where many inmates are vulnerable in both their physical and mental health.

One area he feels needs more focus is on inmates in remand, meaning they haven’t been convicted, which make up 47 per cent of the country’s jailed adults, according to a 2018 Statistics Canada report.

VanBridger says that is true as well for the Monteith Correctional Complex, east of Timmins.

Timmins criminal defence lawyer William VanBridger

(William VanBridger is a criminal defence lawyer in Timmins. He feels early release for low-risk inmates is the right step. Mar. 30/20 Sergio Arangio/CTV Northern Ontario)

"They’re there awaiting trial, and if the trial isn’t going to happen for a few months, it seems unreasonable," said VanBridger. "If they are non-violent offenders and of low-risk to Timmins and the community, they should be released. And they should be able to social distance and isolate themselves, like the rest of us who are not in custody."

In the courts, though, VanBridger said both the Crown and defence attorneys are making efforts to get those individuals released on bail or through plea agreements.

It’s a sign of the importance of public health and safety over the traditional rivalry of the courtroom he says.

"It seems like everyone’s on the same page…Everyone seems to be cooperating and doing what’s best in the circumstances," said VanBridger.