Canada’s carceral institutions have a COVID containment problem and nobody in a position to do anything about it seems to care.
According to Correctional Services Canada, 195 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus in Canadian prisons, none of whom are in Alberta.
However, Alberta prisons have completed just 28 tests out of 742 at federal institutions across Canada. By contrast, neighbouring British Columbia has conducted 327 tests in its prisons.
An inmate at Mission Institution in B.C. was the first prisoner to die of COVID-related complications on April 16.
Those sentenced to two years or more for an offence are sent to a federal institution, while those with shorter sentences are sent to provincial. Remand is where those accused of a crime are sent when they can’t make bail.
The first positive COVID-19 test in a Canadian jail occurred in late-March at the Toronto South Detention Centre, the country’s second-largest jail after the Edmonton Remand Centre, which appears to have been brought in by a guard who didn’t self-isolate for 14 days after returning from vacation.
“This has been a crisis decades in the making,” Justin Ling writes in a deeply-reported piece for Vice. “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.”
For the article, he spoke with inmates, their relatives and lawyers, who shared the same concerns regarding carceral conditions.
“People in the prison system are anxious, afraid, and in the dark,” wrote Ling, who has repeatedly asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about these conditions, only to receive a characteristically canned response.
According to Statistics Canada, there are 14,812 inmates in provincial and territorial remand centres, compared with 9,543 in jail after being sentenced, so far more inmates in provincial and territorial institutions haven’t been convicted of a crime than have.
In Alberta, 72 per cent of inmates are awaiting trial, the highest rate in the nation.
Lawyers’ associations calls for more proactive measures
In late-March, the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association and Alberta Prison Justice Society called for all non-violent offenders, as well as those with medical issues and less than 90 days remaining in their sentence, to be released to allow for appropriate physical distancing in jails.
More recently, the Canadian Prison Law Association has written two letters calling on all the provinces’ and territories’ chief medical officers and justice ministers to implement measures ensuring the health and safety of all prisoners — one on April 2 and another on April 17.
CPLA president Tom Engel, an Edmonton-based criminal defence lawyer, says they’ve received an automated response to both letters.
“To me, the message is ‘we don’t care,'” he said.
Email I sent on behalf of the Canadian Prison Law Assoc. to Federal, Provincial and Territorial Ministers of Health and Officers of Health. They continue to fail to inform the public of what #Covid19 measures & oversight they are undertaking in #prisonshttps://t.co/zboekD09Uy
— Tom Engel (@TomEngel18) April 24, 2020
At the ERC, where Engel has a client incarcerated, the only steps they’ve taken is to keep the prisoners in their cells 22.5 hours a day and wiping the phones down every couple of days.
“There’s not that much that’s changed, in terms of COVID-19 precautions,” he said. “What they’re saying they’re doing for hygienic measures, they’re not doing, according to the prisoners.”
Engel says there are several measures jails can take to guard against a COVID outbreak, such as ensuring no prisoners are double-bunked, hiring professional cleaners, ensuring staff wear masks and prisoners wash their hands, among other steps.
“They need to empty the remand centre sufficiently, so that no one is double-bunked,” he said. “They have to depopulate.”
There’s an entire 72-bed pod of the jail that “sits empty” and could be opened to spread out the prisoners more, Engel added.
He says the country’s only public health official who has even acknowledged the crisis brewing in Canada’s jails is the federal chief medical officer Theresa Tam.
“Dr. Deified Deena Hinshaw hasn’t told us anything,” Engel said, questioning whether Alberta’s chief medical officer has been inside any of these facilities since the pandemic began.
Just as inmates have the right to vote, they have the same right to healthcare as any other Canadian. Politicians and public health officials need to ensure this happens.
Their silence is deafening.
This post contains informed analysis and opinion.
Jeremy is a freelance reporter based in Medicine Hat. He also is a host of the Big Shiny Takes and upcoming Forgotten Corner podcasts.