Canada’s prison watchdog calls out prison officials over handling of COVID-19

“It is not clear that CSC was resourced or fully prepared to deal with this pandemic,” says Ivan Zinger. APTN File

The Office of the Correctional Investigator is the latest to join a chorus of voices criticizing Correctional Services Canada’s handling of COVID-19 outbreaks in its federal prisons.

According to Ivan Zinger, the outbreaks, coupled with a perceived lack of action by prison officials, were the subject of over 100 complaints lodged with his office over the last month.

“Complaints and allegations range from staff not wearing proper protective gear or not practicing safe physical distancing, to loss of yard time, lack of access to programs, chaplaincy, and overall restrictive routines and conditions of confinement,” he writes.

According to Correctional Services Canada (CSC), there are 193 cases of COVID-19 confirmed among the federal inmate population.

One COVID-related death was reported at the Mission Institute in British Columbia over the weekend.

But in his status report, released Friday, Zinger says “data maintained but not publicly released by [CSC]” indicates close to 400 inmates are currently flagged as being under some form of medical isolation.

According to CSC data, 588 Federal inmates – or 4 per cent of the total inmate population – were tested for COVID-19.

However, 33 per cent of inmates tested for the virus receive a positive result, according to Zinger.

Outbreaks have been reported in penitentiaries located in Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia – spiking from three confirmed prison cases on March 30, to 193 as of April 22.

“It is not clear that CSC was resourced or fully prepared to deal with this pandemic when it eventually and predictability was introduced from the outside,” Zinger wrote in the his nine-page briefing.

“Though CSC prepares for seasonal influenza each year, with all respect COVID-19 does not behave like a normal virus,” he added.

This week, a Federal inmate in Quebec filed a statement of claim alleging she infected over half the inmate population at Joliette Women’s Institution when infirmary staff brushed off her symptoms as “just the flu.”

Prior to that, Joelle Beaulieu, an Ojibwe woman who worked in the prison as a cleaner, says supervisors ignored numerous requests for masks and better protection when cleaning common spaces.

Zinger recommends CSC’s infection prevention and control protocols and procedures in federal penitentiaries  be “independently verified, audited, inspected, and tested” by outside experts.

“Local and/or national public authorities need to visit, inspect, and confirm that federal institutions have the capacity, resources, staffing, and equipment to deal with an outbreak, when or if it occurs,” he explained.

Despite measures in place, the Zinger reports “contradictions and inconsistencies” in their application.

For example, protective masks were initially issued only to staff, not inmates. Practicing social distancing is also a challenge, he said.

Zinger recommends that all corrections staff and inmates working at a prison with an ongoing outbreak be immediately tested and provided additional face masks and protective equipment.

“National direction for staff indicates that soap and hand sanitizer were to be made available to everyone, though the Office has subsequently confirmed that inmate access to the latter has been denied on the basis of its high alcohol content, even though bittering agents can be added to the mixture,” Zinger said.

Also being closely monitored by the office are “incident trends.”

The report notes an overall spike in incidents involving “unusual” or “non compliant inmate behavior” at a number of sites in response to COVID-19 measures – or at some facilities, a lack thereof.

“[This includes] disciplinary problems, protests, threats against staff, assaults on inmates, hunger strikes, and other disturbances,” according to Zinger.

“As good prison health is also good public health, we cannot afford to leave anybody behind in the fight against this pandemic,” he added.

Calls for transparency, shared info

Also in Zinger’s recommendations to corrections officials: better communication of data with journalists and other stakeholders.

He says there has been a “general lack of proactive and regular information-sharing from CSC.”

“A centralized – and often sanitized – approach to crisis communications does not serve the public interest well, Zinger writes, adding that Wardens or Deputies should be authorized to provide consistent media updates as the pandemic plays out.

During this week’s COVID-19 task force briefings, a handful of journalists asked federal officials whether corrections-related information is being withheld, or simply isn’t being collected.

Another reporter asked whether the federal government had cut back on its access to information resources, as journalists and advocacy groups across the country are struggling to gather consistent information about pandemic impact on prisons.

APTN News, for example, attempted to verify Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s statement this week that “literally hundreds” of Federal inmates had received approval for early release to mitigate COVID-19 spread.

CSC was able to confirm an average of 600 inmates are released every month. In March 2020, 626 inmates were released. They could not answer questions about whether the 26 releases were virus-related.

Blair’s office could not specify when – or where – these releases took place.

Follow up questions to CSC about the outbreak at Joliette Prison went unanswered as well.

The overall issues communication motivated the NDP to call for a task force overseen by a Federal judge – one ensuring both CSC and the Parole Board of Canada are prioritizing vulnerable inmates for early release, and ultimately following through.

In a statement, NDP MP Jack Harris (St. John’s East), critic for public safety said he’d observed a “lack of concerted effort” by CSC and the Parole Board to prioritize early release as a harm-reduction method.

But there are potential issues facing provincial facilities as well.

Provincial jails house almost three times the total number of Federal inmates – yet they’ve seen less than one third of cases seen in Federal prisons, according data-tracking by the University of Ottawa.

As of Friday morning, the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project reports less than 100 cases of COVID-19 in provincial jails across Canada, versus nearly 300 inmates and employees infected at the Federal level.

Begging the question from advocates: do provinces really have fewer cases, or are they just releasing less information?

“When nearly nothing is communicated about the situation in prisons, and when we don’t know whether inmates are being regularly tested, how do we know the situation is under control?” Lucie Lemonde, spokesperson for the Quebec-based Ligue des Droits et Libertes, said in a statement.

The human rights organization is demanding the Quebec government publicize their prevention protocols and reveal what instructions jail officials were given.

The request follows an appeal to the government by the Quebec Guards’ over rationing of protective equipment, and the absence of health and support workers.

The Ligue des Droits also wants to know the number and type of protective equipment allocated to each facility, testing data, and how often inmates and staff members were transferred, as well as details on staff shortages.

“The dramatic situation in long-term care facilities forced the government to make public this type of data,” Lemonde said. “Transparency is also essential for prisons.”

“Indeed, top down command-and-control hierarchies can easily contradict or conflict with the direction of local public health authorities,” Zinger said of his media-related recommendation.

“More than ever, this is a time to decentralize rather than control communications.”

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