REGINA -- Fewer people are being held behind bars in Saskatchewan, in efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in correctional centres.

The number of inmates has dropped by 30 per cent since the province declared a state of emergency. Many offenders are being managed in the community instead.

“Fact is the provincial government has released about 30% of the prison population the in the last couple of months, over 500 people without a corresponding increase in crime or decrease to social safety in our community,” said Shawn Fraser, the CEO of the John Howard Society.

The government said the number of inmates in correctional centres went from a record high of 2083 in March, to a record low of 1452 in May. The province is still going ahead with a plan to build a 400 bed addition to the Saskatoon correctional centre at a cost of $120 million.

“Thus investment is certainly a shout out to old ways of thinking and ultimately our take on it is if you build it they will come,” said Fraser.

A petition by the Elizabeth Fry Society has gathered over 1200 signatures of people opposed to the new correctional centre addition. Saskatchewan’s Corrections Minister is surprised to hear of opposition to bigger jails.

“I do find it interesting that John Howard would make that comment when very recently, within the past couple of years, they were the ones advocating for more space. Space was limiting the amount and the effectiveness of our programming within our facilities,” Christine Tell, the Minister of Corrections said.

The NDP opposition believes there is something to be learned from the COVID-19 experience.

“There are pieces of what happened during the pandemic that the ministry should really be looking at. What sort of lessons can be taken forward rather than sinking $120 million into a new project,” said Nicole Sarauer, an NDP MLA.