N.W.T. judge criticizes lack of COVID-19 testing in jail

A judge had some harsh words for the lack of measures being taken to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading to a Northwest Territories correctional facility.

“It just boggles the mind that we would be in a situation like that, this far into the pandemic,” said N.W.T. Supreme Court Justice Andrew Mahar during a bail hearing in Yellowknife on Monday.

Colten McNeely, from Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., was asking to be released because he has asthma and believes he’s more likely to become ill with COVID-19 while being held at the North Slave Correctional Complex (NSCC) until his sentencing in October.

McNeely was found guilty of manslaughter in January in the death of Lloyd Edgi.

The hearing focused on measures, or lack thereof, in place to prevent the virus that causes COVID-19 from entering NSCC. Warden John Nahanni testified about steps being taken, including having each new inmate complete a questionnaire designed to determine if they’re at risk of having the coronavirus, and insisting on social distancing.

But Mahar questioned why other measures were not being carried out.

“How complicated is it to take someone’s temperature when they arrive?” Mahar asked.

He also wondered why new inmates were not being tested for the virus, given the number of people admitted to the jail has dropped drastically to about 12 to 15 each month.

“Surely you could test 15 inmates each month to ensure you’re not allowing asymptomatic inmates into the facility,” said Mahar, noting there’s a growing body of evidence that the disease is spread by people before they show symptoms.

Inmate tested last week

Nahanni said he understood that there are not enough tests for each new inmate. Under questioning from McNeely’s lawyer, he said an inmate was removed from the facility late Friday for testing. He said the results came back negative Monday morning. 

Nahanni said a total of five inmates have been tested. None had the virus.

He agreed that some staff at the facility are worried about the lack of protection in place.

“Along with this crisis there are many different thoughts and opinions,” said Nahanni. “Yes, there have been some concerns expressed.”

Justice Mahar emphasized his questions and criticisms were not directed at Nahanni personally.

McNeely denied bail

The judge did not release McNeely. He noted that McNeely himself said his asthma is triggered mainly by smoke, such as from a forest fire. Mahar also pointed out that McNeely said that for years he has not had an inhaler to help when he does suffer an attack. 

But Mahar said his greatest concern was the impact releasing McNeely would have on the public’s confidence in the justice system. Unlike most people seeking bail, McNeely has been convicted. 

McNeely is scheduled to be sentenced in Fort Good Hope on Oct. 13.

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