Alberta prisoner populations rise after 'unprecedented' drop during COVID's early months

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The number of people locked up in Alberta’s provincial jails plummeted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic but has trended upward in the year since, according to new data obtained by Postmedia.

Alberta corrections populations fell 35 per cent at the outset of the pandemic, as the justice system responded to worries about coronavirus outbreaks in jails and remand centres.

But after bottoming out in the summer, the number of provincial inmates started to climb. The first outbreaks in the Alberta corrections system occurred during the second wave of infections, which coincided with that rise.

Since then, a total of 1,310 inmates, staff and contractors have fallen ill with the virus. Justin Piché, a University of Ottawa criminologist who has been tracking COVID-19 cases in prisons, said as of March 10, 2021, Alberta had the most cumulative COVID cases of any provincial correctional system, second only to the federal Correctional Service Canada.


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Sandra Bucerius, director of the Centre for Criminological Research at the University of Alberta, said it is difficult to draw a straight line between the size of a prison population and specific COVID outbreaks.

“However, I think what we have generally learned in this pandemic is that the virus spreads more easily when people congregate in enclosed spaces, and prisons are certainly enclosed spaces,” she said in an email.

‘These places are breeding grounds’

Alberta has eight adult jails and remand centres. They house inmates awaiting trial — who make up the vast majority — as well as people serving sentences of two years or less.

On March 1, 2020, 10 days before the World Health Organization declared the global pandemic, there were 3,534 people housed in Alberta correctional facilities.

By April 24, there were just 2,310, a decline of nearly 35 per cent.

That decline was mirrored across Canada. As of May 2020, there were 7,000 fewer adults in Canadian prisons and jails than there were three months prior (federal prison populations remained relatively stable).

Statistics Canada called the decline “unprecedented.”

Chris Hay, executive director of the John Howard Society of Alberta, said it remains to be seen what drove the initial decrease in incarceration.

“I think the (system has) done well to say ‘we recognize that these places are breeding grounds and the less people in there, the better off we will be as a society.’”


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Since the early days of the pandemic, though, corrections populations have rebounded. As of March 10, 2021, there were 2,932 inmates in provincial custody, up 27 per cent from a low of 2,300 in July.

Prisoner populations grew through the second wave, when the system saw its first major outbreaks.

Alberta Corrections managed to keep COVID out of provincial jails until the outbreak at the Calgary Correctional Centre, which sickened 120 inmates in the span of a month this fall and has been linked to 128 total infections.

Inmates at the facility complained of unsanitary conditions, minimal compliance with COVID protocols and crowding. Nevertheless, at the start of the October outbreak, the jail was still about 35 per cent below its pre-COVID capacity.

Outbreaks occurred at five other facilities during the second wave, including the Calgary Remand Centre (465 total cases as of March 10, 2021), the Edmonton Remand Centre (466), Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre (133), Peace River Correctional Centre (96) and Red Deer Remand Centre (22).

Impact on crime TBD

Kevin Haggerty, a U of A criminologist, said it is “extremely difficult” to say why correctional populations rise or fall at any given time.

“It might be related to a change in offending behaviour, it might be related to adaptations in police deployment or charging practices, it could be related to developments at the level of the Crown, where decisions about prosecution are made,” he said in an email.


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“Any or all of these factors can play a role in changing the number of individuals being held in prison. Without some real solid research, it would be hard to say what exactly is accounting for these shifts.”

Bucerius said it is even more difficult to say whether the “decarceration” that has occurred during COVID has had an impact on crime.

“So far, there is no Canadian data available,” she said.

She added: It is disappointing to see that the population count has gone up again, especially when looking at the numbers of those held in remand custody awaiting trial.”

Hay, for his part, does not believe decarceration has led to a significant increase in crime.

He said COVID has demonstrated that community supervision, in many cases, can be a safe, cheaper and more effective alternative to imprisonment.

“Just because they’re not in jail doesn’t mean we just let them go,” he said.


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