HALIFAX -- An advocacy group is urging governments to help it add housing so female inmates can leave jails before the COVID-19 pandemic hits Atlantic Canada institutions.

The executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia said Monday she's asking Correctional Service Canada for funding to help rapidly set up housing for low-risk offenders who receive early release.

Emma Halpern says in a letter sent to the federal government on Thursday that a four-bedroom house in the Halifax area is already available for women exiting federal or provincial institutions in the province, and more buildings could be obtained.

She said it's critical to have housing ready for inmates during the pandemic, and Ottawa and the provinces need to move swiftly to assist her organization and others.

"Correctional facilities are not equipped to handle a pandemic like this," she said.

Halpern said she had received no acknowledgment of her proposal from federal officials as of Monday evening, which she says is disturbing amid reports of inmates testing positive for COVID-19 elsewhere in Canada.

Sara Tessier, a 45-year-old former inmate at the federal Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S., said social distancing is difficult in densely populated institutions, where inmates often share food preparation and living areas.

Tessier, who is on day parole, said it's "a time to make some changes."

"We need to be depopulating the prisons. We need to be getting low-risk, non-violent offenders out in the communities where they can be with their families or in residential housing in the communities," Tessier said in an interview from her residence.

Correctional Service Canada said it could not provide comment by Monday evening, but in a recent statement it said all institutions in the region are "assessing operational decisions" on a regular basis.

"Sites are working with local public health departments for consultation and advice, and will continue to adjust as the situation evolves," it said.

Halpern said she has contacted the Nova Scotia government with a similar proposal, seeking funding to help transition women in provincial jails to housing her group provides. Premier Stephen McNeil said Monday he'd consider the idea of expanded housing for former inmates.

"This is a very vulnerable population .... I can tell you we as a government will do everything we can to try and support our sister organizations out there who are really a lifeline for these families," he said.

However, Halpern said to date there's been a lack of co-ordinated response from provincial departments when inmates are allowed to return to the community as a result of COVID-19.

"There's not adequate housing. There's not adequate supports in place. We're scrambling to ensure people have food. We have a massive increase in clients living in hotels," she said.

Halpern says the annual funding needed for a four-bedroom residence is typically about $200,000. Her organization provides support staff, including mental health counselling and tele-medicine.

Around the Atlantic region, provincial governments have been asked by prisoners' rights groups to allow some inmates to shift into the community due to the pandemic.

Last month, Nova Scotia announced 41 people who are serving intermittent sentences -- mostly on weekends -- in the province's four adult correctional facilities would be released on temporary absence.

In Prince Edward Island a number of offenders had been released on temporary absence as of April 1.

They include 25 offenders serving intermittent sentences, 17 inmates near the end of their sentences and four offenders who are elderly or have underlying health conditions.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2020.

-- With files from Kevin Bissett in Fredericton.