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Canada's Prisons Are a Coronavirus Time Bomb, Say Guards and Inmates

Justin Trudeau has brushed aside calls to release some non-violent offenders in order to protect their health.

by Justin Ling
Mar 27 2020, 2:03pm

Inmates and guards say the prison system is not prepared for a pandemic. Image by The Canadian Press

One of the guys in Michael’s institution went down to the dining hall, not feeling well. He started coughing. Then he vomited, right there, where the other guys were eating. Since then, inmates haven’t been allowed in the dining hall.

This is prison in Canada in the era of COVID-19. For days, prisoners sat in their cell, holding their breath that their fellow inmate hadn’t tested positive for the virus. Michael asked for a bottle of hand sanitizer—no, a guard told him, you’ll all just drink it.

“The guards are being harder now than they ever were,” Michael told me from a payphone at the Prince Albert prison in Saskatchewan. “They think we’ve got the virus.”

Luckily, the other inmate tested negative for the virus. But many prisoners feel that it is just a matter of time before the COVID-19 wave arrives, as it has in the United States. And despite promises from the federal and provincial governments that their prisons are well-equipped to deal with the pandemic, inmates are far from convinced. Even one prison guard, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job, told VICE that “it's just a matter of time before it gets into our facility.”

The first inmate case of COVID-19 was reported Wednesday, at the provincially run Toronto South Detention Centre. The inmate was exposed to the virus before being remanded to custody, and was only tested and quarantined after he was booked into the jail.

This has been a crisis decades in the making. Canada’s prisons are unhygienic, the relationship between inmates and guards is fraught, facilities are decrepit, the quality of healthcare is shameful. All of those problems seem set to collide during this pandemic.

Despite the emerging crisis, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau brushed aside calls to start releasing low-risk and non-violent criminals to help enforce social distancing in the prisons and lower the risk.

Trudeau recognized last week that there are “heightened risks” posed by keeping prisons full during a public health crisis, but said only that his governments would “take measures to keep our incarcerated population safe,” without specifying what those were. I had asked him a direct question: Will you release low-risk inmates to reduce this threat?

He didn't give a direct answer.

"Hopefully they get better, right?”

In the past week, I’ve spoken to more than a dozen inmates, family members of those incarcerated, lawyers, and prison guards. People in the prison system are anxious, afraid, and in the dark.

Inmates say they’ve received no information from the prisons on the COVID-19 crisis. One reported that a prison guard told him that, if he gets seriously sick, he won’t be getting a ventilator—that’ll go to a law-abiding citizen, the guard said.

“People are stressed out,” said Michael, who asked for anonymity out of fear of retribution from guards. When they’ve asked guards about COVID-19, the answer has just been: Go wash your hands—something that can be hard when soap is a scarcity. “What’s their plan? Do they even got a plan?” Michael asked.

Stuart Serson, who is nearing the end of his four-year sentence at the Pacific Institution in British Columbia, said his institution has been doing little to isolate inmates who are feeling ill. Michael said his institution transferred in an inmate, even though he was sick.

“Hopefully, they get better, right?” Serson said.

The size of the challenge is huge. At any given moment, nearly 40,000 inmates fall under provincial jurisdiction, meaning they are serving less than two-year sentences and are thus the responsibility of the provinces and territories; while some 15,000 are serving more than two years, and therefore go to federally run prisons administered by Correctional Services Canada (CSC).

CSC told me that they are prepared for an outbreak, and have plans in place to ensure food and healthcare delivery if COVID-19 begins spreading through its institutions.

Less clear, however, is what CSC plans to do to actually stop COVID-19 from spreading.

A spokesperson for CSC said in an email that “we have also distributed additional soap, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizer to staff and inmates and we are educating staff and inmates on the prevention and spread of illness including the importance of good hygiene practices.”

According to inmates, they are not seeing that yet.

“They’re not giving us hand sanitizer because they’re worried about alcohol,” Michael said.

Serson echoed that, saying the only soap they’re provided is the bodywash they buy at the canteen. “There’s nothing in the washrooms,” he said. Michael said, “We’ve got one bar of soap—the same bar of soap that we get every other week.”

Donna MacKay, whose partner is serving a sentence in the Gravenhurst Institution, said “there’s absolutely no hand sanitizer for the inmates.” Not even extra soap.

Lawyer Allison Craig, who has clients in several provincial institutions in Ontario, reported it’s even worse than that. “They all tell me that the guards have hand sanitizer but that the inmates aren't allowed to use it,” she said. “They don't have soap to wash their hands with, and they're told to use the shampoo that they buy themselves from the canteen.” Shampoo and extra soap costs four or five times what it would in the outside world.

“Many inmates don't have canteen money to spend in the first place,” Craig said. “It's horrifying.”

Ryan Graham, president of OPSEU Local 234, which covers the Maplehurst and Vanier provincial prisons in Ontario, said hand sanitizer and soap have been made available for both guards and inmates.

Soap can be scarce, and social distancing is virtually impossible.

Serson said that since panic about the COVID-19 pandemic has reached his prison, inmates have been locked down to their range—his institution is broken down by row of cells, or ranges, housing 15 inmates each. While that might sound like quarantine, it actually means that social isolation is virtually impossible. In Michael’s prison, they’re housed 20 to a range.

“On the range, we’re side by side; our cells are right next to each other. You can’t escape anything in here,” Serson said.

Federal institutions, by and large, aren’t crowded. But before arriving in a federal facility, inmates are kept in provincial jails, where they may be bunked three or four to a room. When they have court visits, they are kept in “tanks,” where dozens of accused individuals may be held in close quarters.

Even if prisoners try and keep their distance from one other, that’s impossible when it comes to the guards, who commute into the prison from their respective communities. They do not wear masks or gloves. “They’re still patting us down; they’re still touching us,” Serson said. “Everything they touch, we touch.”

Justin Parry, an inmate in the Joyceville minimum security prison near Kingston, said he’s been alarmed by the lack of social distancing measures taken by the guards. A couple corrections officers brought face masks from home—but most didn’t. In an audio statement sent to VICE, Parry said he raised concerns with prison management, but was brushed off. Parry said a corrections officer “warned me that there are repercussions for every action, and I might want to think about that before voicing my concerns any further,” in the recording. (VICE was unable to independently corroborate that account.)

“It’s a bomb ready to explode,” Michael said. “And they know this beforehand.”

With all the traffic to and from the prisons, inmates and guards have called for better screening. CSC said they are doing exactly that.

Marie-Claude Lacroix, a lawyer in Montreal who has clients in prisons and jails across Quebec, has been told by her clients that guards in some of the institutions have returned from vacation and haven’t observed the 14-day self-isolation period demanded by public health officials. “Employees work even if their family tested positive, or if they have symptoms,” she said.

MacKay said in her partner’s institution, screening means little more than asking, “Do you feel OK?”

CSC also told me they have a supply of personal protective equipment for guards, and are looking to buy more. Inmates said that guards have not been wearing gloves or masks. Michael told me that even kitchen staff weren’t wearing gloves, until inmates complained. Graham said his provincial institution has enough personal protective equipment for a regular day, but “if we are to have an outbreak of COVID-19 inside of our institution we will be in dire straits.”

CSC’s broader approach has been to ban virtually all visitors from federal prisons, and to limit all absences and work release from the prisons, “unless medically necessary.”

Dr. Ivan Zinger is Canada’s Correctional Investigator, responsible for monitoring the conditions of federal institutions. Zinger said forbidding non-essential visits also makes it hard to oversee just what the prisons are doing. “It becomes of increased importance for my office to be the eyes inside the penitentiaries,” he said.

The office of Ontario’s Solicitor General told VICE that everyone entering provincial jails “are subject to screening procedures for respiratory illness.”

But Graham said the screening was limited. Inmates are asked questions about their recent travel and symptoms before being admitted to the institution, he said. Corrections staff “are currently passively screened by a posted document on our sign-in room door.” Staff who self-report symptoms or recent travel are asked to go home.

One provincial corrections officer reports that they requested temperature checks be done on those entering the jail—“we were flat out denied,” they said via email. “It has been business as usual, with inmates going out to court and all individuals not being tested properly upon return.”

Several Ontario prison guards and support staff have already tested positive for COVID-19. “The Maplehurst Complex is currently not ready for an outbreak,” Graham said. While he said staff and the government are working to prepare, it is not happening as quickly as it needs to.

Zinger said he’s confident that CSC’s head office have developed plans to avoid COVID-19 by testing and isolation. How quickly individual institutions implement those procedures is an open question.

“Corrections, the national headquarters, can have a great plan, a great strategy, but it’s on implementation is where things fall apart,” Zinger said. “So they’re working very hard to make it consistent.” He said part of the effort is to bring in more nurses and healthcare professionals—something CSC has struggled with for years.

The federal correctional investigator has raised serious concerns with prison healthcare, writing: “The federal correctional system faces serious capacity, accessibility, quality of care and health service delivery challenges and constraints.” That includes “aging and inappropriate infrastructure,” and a lack of health care professionals. Inmates already face a significantly higher prevalence of tuberculosis and HIV.

Zinger told me that “regular institutions are not designed to deal with an influx of challenging cases. So they could be overwhelmed, absolutely.”

Many provincial institutions and jails have no healthcare system to speak of.

Inmates aren’t waiting to find out what happens next—they are organizing. In Prince Albert, the inmate wellness committee has hired Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt to explore a possible legal challenge to how the government and prisons are handling COVID-19. “We want to know what our rights are,” Michael said.

Zinger said his office has seen “a surge of complaints from inmates with respect to how institutions are managing the pandemic.”

CSC refused to answer questions as to how many corrections staff or inmates have been tested for COVID-19, except to say that there have been no positive tests.

"I guess they're waiting for the outbreak"

A week after I first asked Trudeau about the threat posed by Canada’s prisons, after talking to inmates about the state of the response in those institutions, I asked Trudeau again: Given prisoners are saying prisons are woefully unequipped to deal with this crisis, will you be releasing non-violent offenders?

As the vast majority of inmates in both provincial and federal prison are incarcerated under federal laws—mostly the Criminal Code and Controlled Drugs and Substances Act—the Trudeau government has the power to order their release. About three-quarters of inmates are incarcerated on non-violent offences.

Trudeau provided, nearly verbatim, the non-answer he provided the week before.

“We recognize that the incarcerated population is at greater risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19,” Trudeau began. “That is why we are working closely with Corrections Canada to ensure that we are looking at a broad range of measures to keep both those who work at our corrections facilities, but also those who are residents there, to make sure that we are doing things that will keep them safe.

“I have said multiple times, we are not keeping anything off the table in terms of options to keep Canadians safe.”

VICE sent an interview request to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to try and get specifics about that plan, but his office refused. His office just echoed the sentiment that they are “committed to reducing the risk of COVID-19 in our federal institutions and protecting the safety of staff, inmates, and the general public.”

Tom Engel is an Edmonton lawyer and president of the Canadian Prison Law Association. He and his colleagues have sent multiple letters to the federal governments about this crisis, arguing “action must be taken immediately to protect prisoners during this pandemic.” Nobody has received a response from the government.

Engel was surprised that I had heard back from Blair’s office, so I read out the statement to him.

He snorted. “Are you kidding me?”

MacKay, whose partner is serving in Gravenhurst, has also been writing to Trudeau. “I’ve sent him the same letter every day for the past week,” she said. Her message: “These guys are sitting ducks.”

“I guess they’re waiting for the outbreak. And then what are they going to do? That is a dangerous position to take,” Engel said, adding, “It’ll be too late.”

For years, Zinger has recommended that Ottawa begin releasing elderly and infirm patients. Currently, some 700 federal inmates are 65 years or older. Many are terminally ill, face mobility issues, or suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s—inmates “who could easily be managed in the community,” he said, if only CSC had allocated funds and committed to it. Unfortunately, they didn’t.

The families of those inmates are terrified. The daughter of William Lewis, a Nova Scotia man serving time in British Columbia, reached out this week in fear that Lewis’ medical history puts him at particular risk. “We can't live with the fact of our father dying inside prison,” she wrote.

Lewis called me a day later. He’s serving in the Surrey pretrial centre, near Vancouver, run by the B.C. government. “Nothing is being done,” Lewis said. “The B.C. government doesn’t seem to give a shit.”

I start asking about face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, soap. “Nothing. Nothing. No. Not being done.” Their canteen doesn’t even sell soap.

Lewis has a long rap sheet, but all for fraud convictions. Letters sent to VICE report he’s a very good candidate for rehabilitation. He is all of poor health—two heart attacks and only one lung, and he said he’s been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. Catching COVID-19 could be a death sentence.

Lewis passed the phone to other inmates in his unit. They’re all worried. His neighbour, Matt, helps deliver the food. He said they’re given flimsy, ill-fitting plastic gloves that regularly rip. There’s also no proper hand wash stations, he said. “Everything in this building is shared.”

Raymond, who also serves in the Surrey facility, shouldn’t even be in jail. He was released on a drug trafficking charge (he claims it’s trumped-up possession) when he was arrested on another charge. The other charge has been thrown out, but he’s still in detention.

All three inmates say rumours are abound that an inmate in the facility has a presumptive case of COVID-19. Paranoia is rampant.

“I’ve only got 40 days left,” Serson told me earlier this week. He already has a halfway house lined up, too. Unless an order comes from on high to order his freedom, though, his only avenue is to write to the Parole Board of Canada—via snail mail—and request early release.

Michael admitted he’s not a good candidate for early release, but he’s speaking up for other guys he’s serving time with. “There’s a guy next to me who’s being released in two weeks. Why hasn’t he been released yet?” he said.

“Our position is that if you’ve got three months left, and you’re not a danger to the public, get ‘em out,” Engel said. “And they have the tools to do it; whether it’s federally or provincially, they can do it.”

Other jurisdictions didn’t need telling twice.

Los Angeles and Cleveland have released hundreds of inmates already. New York City has started freeing inmates as well, although dozens have already tested positive—including convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein. (Tekashi 6ix9ine and Bill Cosby are both asking for early release for fear of COVID-19, while the former lawyer to President Donald Trump, Michael Cohen, had such an application denied by a judge.) The Australian state of New South Wales has also fast-tracked the release of non-violent offenders in a bid to stem overcrowding as COVID-19 hits.

Even unlikely champions of prisoners’ rights were supportive. Trump, asked about releasing inmates, struck a surprisingly pragmatic tone. “We have been asked about that and we’re going to take a look at it. It’s a bit of a problem,” he said during a press conference Sunday. “We’re talking about totally non-violent prisoners; we are actually looking at that, yes.”

Ontario and Alberta have both started clearing out their institutions. Inmates who were already being released on day passes, or serving only on the weekends, are being told not to come back to the prisons. Alberta is even repurposing an empty unit in the Edmonton Remand Centre to manage sick patients, if it comes to that.

Tough-on-crime conservatives Doug Ford and Jason Kenney have been more proactive on prisoners’ welfare than NDP Premier John Horgan or Trudeau.

Keeping sane inside

Many of the scant measures aimed at reducing the threat of COVID-19 aren’t reducing inmates’ anxiety; they’re adding to it.

Some inmates have lost all access to the gym. Others have lost time outside. School and recreation programs have been cancelled. Most institutions have cut off all visits, meaning inmates won’t be able to see their family—and they do not know when they will be able to see them again.

CSC has claimed to mitigate that, writing on their website: “We want inmates to stay in touch with family while visits are suspended. To help with this, we have waived deductions from inmate pay for use of the telephone system in our institutions.”

MacKay, who talks daily with her partner, said it’s not the case. Gravenhurst gave each inmate a $5 calling credit—two hours of calling within Canada usually costs the inmates about $12 a day. I told her about CSC’s claim. “That’s a joke actually,” MacKay said. She didn’t laugh.

Inmates on lockdown have no phone access.

Even as all other programs have stopped, Lacroix said inmates are continuing to work in the prison industry program, which paid no more than $6.90 per day. “CSC says that government directives (to close non-essential businesses) don’t apply to them,” Lacroix said.

“If they don’t work they threaten them to raise their security classification.”

When possible COVID-19 cases have appeared, the prisons’ first reaction is to lock prisoners to their cells. That leaves them worried, Michael said. “Are they going to be able to contact their families? Every day they go into their cells they think they’re going into their coffins.”

The ranges are fairly spartan. Being locked down with just the 15 to 20 inmates in the nearby cells leaves you without much to do. “There’s a TV on the end of the range by the door, posters, a microwave, fridge, hot kettle, one phone, and that’s about it—oh, and a freezer,” Serson said.

Most other expenses are still shouldered by the inmates. “We pay for our own cable, we pay for our own food if we want better food than the dining hall,” Michael said. They have been petitioning for access to the movie channels to keep them occupied to stave off the boredom, but haven’t had success yet.

It could be worse. Engel said inmates in some provincial jails have been confined to their cells, which may house two or three inmates, for half the day. Others are still placed in solitary confinement, meaning they can spend up to 23 hours in a windowless cell—a practice that was ruled unconstitutional and has been ceased in federal institutions. (Even still, the federal government is appealing those decisions to the Supreme Court.) Keeping prisons confined to their cell without access to human interaction or time outside is, according to international law and courts in Ontario and British Columbia, torture.

Zinger said prolonged lockdowns can have serious risks. “It’s clear that prolonged medical isolation and idleness and create feeling of anger, fear, self-blame, depression, self-harm, and suicide, even,” he said. “There have to be mitigating factors in place.”

Anxiety and panic makes inmates do drastic things. Italian officials clamped down on inmate freedom, including their ability to leave the prison, amid a worsening COVID-19 crisis and as a result riots and prison breaks broke out at 27 sites across the country, leaving a half dozen dead. In South Dakota, an inmate’s positive COVID-19 test prompted a prison break—eight women are still on the loose.

Canada’s prisons are not ready or equipped to handle a pandemic, and they never will be. The only thing that will reduce the risk to those inmates is to follow the advice the prime minister keeps doling out: To isolate as much as possible, and distance from others.

The number of inmates being incarcerated, and policies being enforced across the country, make that impossible.

If things don’t change, there will be outbreaks. And it won’t just affect inmates—guards, healthcare workers, and support staff are all at risk.

In her first email to me, MacKay echoed a sentiment I’ve been hearing a lot.

“The inmates have been given a sentence for their crimes,” she wrote. “But not a death sentence.”

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter.

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