A new explosion of COVID-19 cases has hit Canada’s federal prisons, but Public Safety Minister Bill Blair says the measures they have in place are “effective.”
As of Friday, more than 200 active cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Canada’s federal prisons. The new cases are largely in three prisons across Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.
For months, lawyers and prison advocates have warned that a second wave was due to hit Canada’s prisons, and that too little was being done to avert further crisis.
On Thursday, responding to questions from VICE World News, Blair said his government and Correctional Service of Canada have “stepped in very strongly in their measures of testing and tracing and implementing all of the measures that have proven effective to keep that inmate population safe.”
The second wave in prisons is already on track to be as bad, or worse, as the first, which saw more than 500 cases hit a handful of institutions, killing two inmates.
Since the spring, calls have mounted for the federal government to stop incarcerating inmates, particularly non-violent offenders, those at a low risk for re-offending, and those at high-risk of death or complications due to COVID-19. The Trudeau government has resisted those calls.
Saskatchewan Penitentiary, where 65 percent of the inmates are Indigenous, is reporting 61 active cases and inmates say even basic precautions aren’t being taken. The number of cases has nearly doubled in the past week. Stony Mountain in Manitoba—another prison with a majority-Indigenous population—has seen more than 200 cases in December, with 63 inmates still sick with the virus. Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in Canada’s prisons.
“Sask pen has no plan for this,” said Sherri Maier, a prison advocate who regularly speaks to inmates at Saskatchewan Penitentiary. She said inmates are reporting they have scant cleaning supplies and there is still a lack of soap in the prison.
Other inmates have reported that corrections officers only wear protective masks sporadically, and often fail to practise social distancing.
Maier said “they are still locked up 23.5 hours a day only let out 30 minutes for a shower and maybe a phone call.” The inmates are likely to spend Christmas in those conditions.
In a letter to the Correctional Investigator, Maier relayed conversations she had with the inmates.
“There are guys on the unit who are positive with COVID-19, but they are not being taken off the unit,” Maier wrote.
Joyceville Institution, in Kingston, Ontario, reported 85 new cases over just two days last week, and the outbreak appears to have spread to three other federal prisons across Ontario. One woman told VICE World News that her father, who is incarcerated at Joyceville, “fears it will spread like wildfire.” He suspects the virus “was brought in with the new batch of inmates [that] were processed but not tested for COVID-19 or properly quarantined.”
The Correctional Service reports new case numbers two days after the fact, and does not report updated COVID-19 numbers over weekends.
On Friday, inmates at Joyceville sent an open letter, through the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project. “Since the lockdown began, there’s been no information coming from Correctional Service Canada,” they said.
“For months, they’ve been telling us to postpone our parole hearings,” inmates said in the letter, because the prison administrators “claimed it’s safer inside here than it is out in the community. We’re consistently being told we’re safer in prison, yet now it’s clear that this isn’t actually the case and there appears to be no plan.” The inmates also reported that there is a lack of hot water in the prison, making good hand-washing difficult, and no access to gloves, cleaning supplies, and bleach.
Inmates at Joyceville erected makeshift social distancing barriers, but they were torn down by corrections officers, the letter says.
Maier said inmates at the prison are now on hunger strike to protest the conditions. “There’s 50 guys who are not fucking eating at all,” an inmate told Maier, in a recorded phone call provided to VICE World News. “We want more time out of our cell, and we want...to talk to our families.”
Blair would not say how these new outbreaks happened, except to say that they are a knock-on effect of the higher case counts in the communities at large and “those infections have been brought into the prisons.”
Whatever the reason, the minister said, “we understand our responsibility to keep the prison population safe, and we are taking all the measures available in order to do that.”
While inmates sit in isolation, some prison staff—including parole officers—have been working from home.
The Correctional Investigator, a watchdog for federal prisons, has implored the federal government, since before the pandemic, to begin releasing elderly inmates who are ill, infirm, or who do not pose a risk to the public. Asked why Ottawa has not created a plan to release those inmates, Blair suggested there was a lack of space in halfway houses, and therefore their release was not feasible.
VICE World News asked why releasing inmates, or avoiding incarceration for newly-convicted offenders or parole violations, isn’t one of those measures being considered.
“We're doing everything possible to keep them safe,” Blair said. “But we also have a responsibility to public safety for those individuals who are not eligible for release.”
Blair added that, at the start of the pandemic, his government asked Correctional Service and the Parole Board of Canada “to look at people who were eligible for release who might be particularly vulnerable. And action was taken on those limited numbers.”
As VICE World News reported in May, just four inmates were granted extraordinary parole in the early months of the pandemic.
Blair acknowledged that released offenders are still being returned to federal institutions for parole violations.
In May, a lawsuit was filed by a coalition of organizations—including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Prison Law Association, and two HIV/AIDS organizations—on behalf of as asthmatic federal inmate. The lawsuit alleges that the Correctional Service has not done enough to protect inmates during the pandemic, failed to enact social distancing, and has used the unconstitutional practise of solitary confinement to manage the outbreaks.
In September, the groups asked the court to require the Correctional Service to identify all inmates who could be safely released and provide them with parole or a medical leave from the prisons.
The Government of Canada filed a response contending that “decarceration cannot be assumed to result in better health outcomes and could in some cases actually be detrimental to the released offender’s health in contrast to remaining in a federal institution with its controls and access to health care.”
Most federal prisons have no full-time health services. Some institutions still lack additional hand sanitizer and additional soap. Prisons continue to bring in new inmates and transfer prisoners from one to another—including from institutions experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks to those which have no cases. The inmates at Joyceville report that “in terms of health care right now, they have non-medical professionals coming onto to some of the units doing wellness checks.”
A part of the solution, Ottawa argued in its court filings, was “education and training for staff and offenders on transmission, as well as appropriate infection prevention and control and public health measures.”
The government included some of those materials in its court filings, including advice such as “eat 3 meals per day” and “drink often.”
During the first wave, some prisons placed inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 in “medical isolation” which, inmates, lawyers, and advocates say is indistinguishable from solitary confinement, if not worse.
That prolonged detention may violate court orders ordering the Canadian government to end prolonged solitary confinement.
A recent report from criminologist Anthony Doob, who was previously thwarted in his attempts to analyze Correctional Service’s use of solitary confinement, says Canada is openly violating the constitutional ruling.
Canada’s failure to follow the court order, Doob writes, is not exclusively due to the pandemic.
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