As tensions mount inside Canada’s prisons due to COVID-19, corrections officers have begun deploying pepper spray and rubber bullets against inmates. Fears are mounting that things could spiral out of control quickly.
Prison advocates and watchdogs say corrections officers have deployed tear gas and rubber bullets in prisons in Saskatchewan and Quebec.
As of Friday morning, Correctional Services Canada (CSC) has not responded to multiple requests for statistics on use of force inside its prisons in recent weeks.
At the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, no cases of the virus have been found yet, but there is emerging frustration on both sides. Earlier this week, inmate Bronson Gordon told CBC that guards at the maximum security wing of the prison were still refusing to wear masks and gloves.
In a recording from Wednesday evening, provided to VICE, Gordon said the interview had caused friction inside the prison. “They’re offended because of the thing that came on the news,” Gordon said, referring to the CBC story. Gordon said guards have called him and other inmates “snitches.”
That evening, as inmates went outside to snap some pictures—with visits cancelled, many inmates have taken to mailing disposable cameras to their loved ones—the corrections officers closed the door behind them, the inmates said. “They locked us outside,” Gordon said on the call, a recording of which was provided to VICE by prison advocate Sherri Maier.
The inmates were stuck outside for about a half hour in shorts and tank tops, according to Gordon and another inmate. Temperatures that evening were above freezing, but Gordon said it was still April in Saskatchewan—“cold.”
After being let back inside the prison, the recording picks up the sounds of frustrations mounting. “None of them are wearing masks right now,” Gordon said. “We’ve got one officer wearing a mask.”
Loud arguments can be heard in the background. At one point, two inmates confirmed, a corrections officer fetched a tear gas launcher.
In the background, inmates can be heard taunting the officers. Bronson said the inmate population is not looking to riot. “We’re pretty fucking close, though,” he said. “It’s not going to end good.”
The call cuts out as inmates return to their cells. Maier, who spoke with Gordon the following day, said they averted physical conflict that night, but the prison has since tightened the prison lockdown even further. With no gym, no visits, and conflict over the corrections officers not wearing masks, things are coming to a head, unless something improves. Correctional Services has not responded to enquiries about the Saskatchewan Penitentiary.
At the Donnacona Penitentiary in Quebec, a maximum security institution, an inmate told the John Howard Society that inmates had been blocking their windows to protest conditions—inside many institutions, the only vantage point into a cell is the small window in the door. Blocking it with a pillow or clothing means guards cannot do their rounds, and has served as a form of peaceful protests for many inmates.
Rather than de-escalate the situation, the inmate said, the corrections officers fired teargas and “followed it with firearms using rubber bullets, which injured several prisoners—one had to be taken to an outside hospital for treatment.”
One inmate, they said, “came forward with his hands in the air saying ‘don’t shoot,’ to remove the barrier [in the window.] He was then shot in the leg.”
Correctional Services has not responded to a request for comment on the situation at Donnacona.
Many inmates report that corrections officers are not following protocols.
An April 8 directive from Correctional Services reads : "All asymptomatic staff/contractors who are unable to physically distance themselves (ie: be 2 meters apart) must wear a mask while in the workplace/institution.” A copy of that directive was leaked to VICE after Correctional Services refused to provide it.
More recently, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has said that “every single corrections service worker and inmate in those institutions is being issued with personal protective equipment to help them be safe.” He made those comments on a Facebook townhall with a Liberal MP. The minister’s office has consistently refused interview requests.
Every inmate, and one healthcare worker, has confirmed that the usage of masks is inconsistent. VICE has been told of only one institution where inmates have been given masks—and have been required to wear them, under threat of disciplinary charge—in contrast to the minister’s categorical statement.
“One of the inmate cleaners requested the use of a mask while he was cleaning and was flatly refused,” says the partner of one inmate incarcerated at Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick.
Paul Gallagher, who is incarcerated at the Pacific Institution—not far from Mission, which has seen the worst outbreak in the federal system—says when it comes to officers wearing masks, “some are, some aren’t.” When asked if he had been issued personal protective equipment, he laughed. “I put in a request [for a mask] about a week ago,” he said. “I don’t expect a response.”
As of Wednesday, 193 federal inmates have tested positive for COVID-19—though fewer than 600 tests have been administered. One inmate has died, and others have been sent to provincial hospitals, although Correctional Services still refuses to provide data on the number of hospitalizations. Inmates are only being tested if they have symptoms.
The New Democratic Party has called on Ottawa to begin releasing inmates at a higher health risk, but who are deemed a lower risk to society, to lighten the burden on these institutions.
“This is not just about the prisoners,” Jack Harris, the NDP’s public safety critic, told VICE. “The guards themselves are at risk, because they're in the same situation as the prisoners, as are the communities outside these prisons.”
Harris said he has not heard from Blair or his office since they received a briefing earlier in March, when the minister insisted they were working with Correctional Services and the Parole Board of Canada to assess their options for releasing inmates.
“The main concern at this point is to raise the alarm,” Harris said. “There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency.”
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