Canada’s Prisons Face Hundreds of New COVID-19 Cases Through ‘Fault and Negligence’

Despite what Public Safety Minister Bill Blair says, federal prisons are ignoring their own COVID-19 guidelines, according to prisoners and advocates.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
December 30, 2020, 4:53pm
Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.

A third federal inmate has died of COVID-19, as cases are now being reported in at least nine prisons across the country.

As of December 23, there were still 222 active cases of COVID-19 in Canada’s federal prisons, with hundreds more being reported in provincial jails.

Correctional Services Canada stopped reporting new numbers over the Christmas break, but new numbers released Tuesday show that the outbreak had continued worsening in many prisons.

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Across the country, a network of corrections officers, support staff, lawyers, inmates and advocates tell VICE World News the crisis facing those prisons was inevitable, as the Correctional Service headquarters and Trudeau government did too little to protect against the second wave of the virus—which is already worse than the first.

Internal documents, provided by the Correctional Service employees and filed by the service in response to a lawsuit in federal court, reveal a system trying to keep things running as normal as possible—continuing strip searches and randomized drug testing—even as the pandemic was seeping into the prison.

Meanwhile, there appears to be no clear plan on when, or how, to vaccinate federal inmates. While healthcare in those prisons is the responsibility of the federal government, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed to VICE World News that it would be up to the provinces to administer vaccines inside those prisons.

While Ottawa has decided that it will be a provincial responsibility, a source with knowledge of Ontario’s vaccine distribution plans said they were unaware of Ottawa raising that issue in conversations with the provinces.

Without new action, or a vaccine, things seem destined to get worse, although it’s not clear how bad things currently are: the Correctional Service won’t say how many inmates are in hospital or ICU.

As of this week, more than seven percent of all federal inmates have contracted COVID-19.

‘The guards are taping off their cells’

For months, inmates have warned that their prisons weren’t ready for the second wave of the deadly virus. 

Even as prisons got the first round of outbreaks under control, mask usage was inconsistent. Some inmates called VICE World News, scanning the prison range, counting the number of corrections officers not wearing their requisite surgical masks. Officers, however, were quick to enforce compliance on prisoners—corrections staff in at least one prison initially penalized inmates for wearing their own makeshift masks when none were available.

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“Guards and even correctional managers are not wearing masks or social distancing,” says Kelly Gage Aragon, whose husband is incarcerated at the medium-security Beaver Creek Institution in Gravenhurst, Ontario. In a recently sent letter sent to the Trudeau government, Gage Aragon recounted several of her visits to the prison earlier this year. “Staff walk right in the front door in a group, with no masks. No one stops them. Their temperatures aren't being taken.”

Since the summer, inmates and their families have also reported that new admissions to the prison, and transfers of inmates from other institutions, was continuing as usual.

The Correctional Service’s colour-coded risk strategy involves taking additional precautions, depending on the situation—from low-risk, where COVID-19 is scarce across the country; to moderate-risk, where outbreaks are occurring in the nearby community, but not the prison; and high-risk, where there is an outbreak in the prison.

When things are at yellow, or moderate risk, “local hospital capacity is strained” and the virus is spreading quickly in the community near the prison. In that scenario, transfers from prisons are supposed to be suspended and the Correctional Service is supposed to “work with provinces to defer or delay new admissions.” It is not until orange, or “moderate-high risk,” that transfers are suspended.

Gage Aragon wrote that “transfers are still happening” and added that “new transfers are NOT being isolated or tested, and they haven't been!”

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In mid-December, Beaver Creek reported its first COVID-19 case, just as other prisons across central Ontario reported new cases. Joyceville Institution was the worst hit, facing nearly 150 cases.

“An infected inmate that came from Joyceville was placed immediately into a unit with nine other men without a test or quarantine,” Gage Aragon alleged in her letter. “Once he showed symptoms, they moved him to the behavioral unit. Once he had a positive test result, they moved him to quarantine.”

Even as cases raged throughout the country, it was business as usual in many prisons. At Joyceville Institution’s minimum-security prison, across the street from the main medium-security building, inmates were still being sent to work in a nearby slaughterhouse until mid-December. Meat and food processing plants have been particularly susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks.

New inmates are being sent into the prisons, too. According to one woman who spoke to the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, her fiancé had his parole revoked “because he failed to report his relationship with me to his parole officers.”

According to the Correctional Service’s internal guidelines, under yellow, or moderate risk level, prisons are still required to conduct random urine testing for drugs and alcohol and “critical industry operations remains open.”

Once the outbreak hits a prison, things lock down quickly.

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“There are guys on the unit who are positive with COVID-19, but they are not being taken off the unit,” says Sherri Maier, a prison advocate who regularly speaks with inmates at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, which has been hit by more than 160 cases. “Rather, the guards are taping off their cells.”

Worsening the situation, there have been reports across the country of a lack of hot water, fresh food, and personal protective equipment.

Inmates in that penitentiary are being confined to their cells upwards of 23 hours a day, and there’s no clear sign of when it will end. Inmates began a hunger strike to protest the conditions. One inmate, in a call with Maier, warned that himself and other inmates were contemplating suicide.

Prisons have been using solitary confinement to isolate inmates symptomatic or sick with COVID-19—a lawsuit against the federal government says that practise is unconstitutional.

In response to the lawsuit, the Correctional Service argues that medical isolation and solitary confinement are distinct. Prisoners in medical isolation, they argue, receive “daily health visits [which] should include inquiring as to how they are coping, their emotional well being, if they are having any suicidal urges and if they would like to see mental health staff, a chaplain and/or Elder.” Those health visits should also, “where relevant” involve “end of life issues and wishes.” 

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Research clearly shows that solitary confinement is still being practiced in these prisons, both as a result of COVID-19 and as a matter of general practice.

‘All the bad decisions at the national level cascade down’

On December 28, the Correctional Service announced that an inmate at Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba, had died.

The Correctional Service does not report the number of staff members who have contracted COVID-19, but a list compiled by the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project reports that dozens of employees at the prisons have also fallen ill.

One corrections officer reported that, as of late December, transfers between prisons continued. “Guess what? The inmates and staff are testing positive,” they wrote. VICE World News is not identifying the officer, who is not authorized to speak to the media.

The prisons have been able to do contact tracing, logging interactions between staff and inmates. The downside, however, is that a handful of cases can make basic operations difficult. “We had one inmate test positive so the contact tracing from that one inmate wipes out a whole cohort of staff from reporting to duty,” they wrote. That meant corrections staff working forced overtime during the Christmas holidays. “All the bad decisions at the national level cascade down through the system causing disruptions and safety concerns at every level,” they said.  

“For the prison population, what we needed to do is truly isolate them from everybody else,” says Frank Janz, the Manitoba Regional Vice President for the Union of Safety and Justice Employees—and himself a support staffer at Stony Mountain, which has seen more than 300 cases in recent months.

But, Janz says, that’s not what happened. In recent months, he says, “management got a little more comfortable, started bringing more staff back.” While there was screening at the front doors, “masks were mandatory but not enforced.” 

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Then the prison, which escaped the first wave entirely, started reporting cases. The prison, he says, would not approve paid leave for corrections officers who came in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. “The employer goes: ‘You’ve got to take your own leave for this,’” Janz says. “And people are going ‘I’m not using my leave for this.’”

An internal memo for Correctional Service employees who have come in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 “may be eligible” for paid leave. In practice, it’s up to the Correctional Service management to approve the paid leave. Correctional Services Canada did not respond to a request for comment about sick leave.

Even as cases raged inside the prison—which, under the colour-coded rubric, is supposed to trigger a near-complete lockdown—“there’s lots of movement in the institution, still,” Janz says.

Janz says plenty of the planning and policy-making in Ottawa is well-intentioned, but the reality inside the prisons is often quite different. “I spend a lot of time pointing out the differences between the plan at the national level and what they’re doing at the local level,” he says. 

“[Correctional Services Canada] is a hydra, different sites interpret policy their own way,” said the other corrections officer. Headquarters, they said, “are out of touch with the reality on the ground.”

What bewilders him is that work in the prison industry has continued. 

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“They’re still running manufacturing inside Stony Mountain...they’re making desks,” Janz says. Normally, it’s inmates who are required to do the work. But, with the lockdown, Janz’s colleagues are expected to run the machines and put together the desks.

“This is a business, and they’re there to produce things to sell,” he says. “This isn’t to the benefit of the inmates, it’s to the benefit of the business.”

‘We have to balance our responsibility to keep them safe’

As things worsen inside those prisons, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair suggested the outbreaks were inevitable.

Asked by VICE World News earlier in December about the explosion in new cases, Blair pointed to the personal protection equipment “for all inmates, as well as all correction workers,” the addition of “restrictions on people coming and going from prison” as well as “a very rigorous testing and tracing regime for for our federal institutions.” All that, he said, was “very successful” in reducing and preventing cases.

“But I will acknowledge to you that, as COVID has become far more widespread in the communities in which those institutions are located, that those infections have been brought into the prisons,” the minister said.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples slammed the Trudeau government’s actions to date as “unacceptable.”

“Correctional Service Canada, the Parole Board of Canada and federal cabinet had five months where there were no reported COVID-19 cases linked to penitentiaries to properly prepare for the second wave,” Kim Beaudin, vice-chief of the Congress, wrote in an open letter. “This was time to work in concert to release as many nonviolent prisoners as is safely possible with community supports where needed.

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“On behalf of my people, I am demanding the Government of Canada release as many nonviolent prisoners as possible through the many tools that exist to do so,” Beaudin wrote, also calling for more services and support for those who could not be safely released.

Ottawa has been warned since March that it needed to depopulate prisons as much as possible to avoid calamity.

But, as VICE World News has previously reported, Ottawa pledged to take action to release inmates who were particularly at-risk for the virus, and those who could safely be returned to the community to increase space for social distancing inside the prisons—that, by and large, didn’t happen. Blair would not explain why non-violent inmates weren’t being released, except to say that “we have to balance our responsibility to keep them safe...we also have a responsibility to public safety for those individuals who are not eligible for release.”

Beaudin continued in his letter that “inaction will signal to Indigenous Peoples that our lives do not matter and that the Federal government remains unable to move past colonialist legacies.”

Indigenous peoples are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate in Canada, both in terms of their share of the population and in terms of who actually commits crimes. Indigenous peoples are also more likely to be classified into medium or maximum-security prisons than white inmates.

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Both Stony Mountain and Saskatchewan Penitentiary are predominantly Indigenous.

The Canadian Prison Law Association, which represents inmates across the country, laid out the problem starkly in a December 23 letter to Blair: “[Correctional Services Canada] has not taken significant measures to significantly reduce the prison population in Canada. Instead, it has allowed this deadly virus to infect 795 prisoners.” That number has since grown. 

“Our clients report being held in total isolation, sometimes for 24 hours per day, or for all but 15-20 minutes per day, for weeks or months on end whenever there is a positive COVID-19 test of either staff or prisoners in an institution,” president of the association Tom Engel wrote in a letter to Blair. “This degree of isolation is well-known to cause anxiety, depression and anger, and to increase the risk of suicide.”

Jack Harris, the New Democratic Party public safety critic, says that for all the calls for reform, he’s heard little from Ottawa.

“We’re not seeing any significant response by the government,” Harris told VICE World News. “When it’s raised directly to Mr. Blair, his response is that the [Correctional Service Canada] officials have assured him that they’re doing all that needs to be done.”

Harris and his party have called for stronger measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, especially releasing inmates who pose no risk to public safety. As to why the government refuses to do that, Harris says, “we never got a proper answer.

“There are plenty of people who are behind bars who could be released safely. I’m not convinced that any serious consideration was given to that.”

His party has also been critical of the Correctional Service’s reliance on solitary confinement. “It’s an ongoing situation that is very deplorable,” he says.

“People are trying to hold the government to account,” Harris says. “It’s time the government hold [Correctional Services Canada] to account.

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