No books, visits, or showers: Pandemic prison conditions in Quebec spark human rights debate 

There are now over 6,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 tied to federal prisons and provincial jails across the country according to recent data collected by the Criminalization Punishment and Education Project (CPEP) based out of the University of Ottawa.

According to that data, during the second wave of the pandemic, it’s provincial jails – not federal prisons – that are grappling with widespread outbreaks.

Newfoundland and Labrador, P.E.I., New Brunswick, Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and the Yukon have yet to report any cases of COVID-19 in their provincially-run jails, according to CPEP.

Provincial jails in Quebec, in particular, are among the hardest-hit, with over 778 active cases of the virus reportedly affecting both inmates and corrections staff.

Advocates say Quebec’s handling of the issue is directly interfering with inmates’ human rights.

Nadia Golmier is a corrections lawyer who represents First Nations and Inuit detainees serving time in various facilities in Quebec.

Golmier is particularly concerned with the outbreak at the Montreal Detention Centre – also known as Bordeaux jail – which she says houses a number of Mohawk detainees.

Information obtained from the province’s Public Security Ministry indicates there are more than 30 inmates at Bordeaux who self-identify as First Nations or Inuit.

“It’s extremely, extremely difficult for them – they expressed to me a lot of sadness, anger, incomprehension,” Golmier told APTN News.

“They feel like they’re – a lot of them – they’re treated like dogs. They feel it’s inhumane.”

As of Feb. 9, Quebec reported over 130 cases of COVID-19 affecting both Bordeaux inmates and staff.

As a result, according to Golmier, inmates are grappling with an extended lockdown – meaning they’re confined to their cells 24/7, and held between 14 to 28 days at a time.

Books, she says, are banned “for security reasons,” and visits have been suspended since March of last year. The jails are too short-staffed to guarantee inmates’ access to showers.

Golmier explains that on rare occasions, inmates will get access to a radio, or minutes-long access to a shared cell phone.

But most of the time, she says, they’re left in a forced segregation similar to the type abolished by Federal law two years ago, on the basis it was a “cruel and unusual” form of punishment.

“Even lawyers are having difficulty reaching their clients in those conditions, even though the right to speak to your lawyer is a constitutional right – it’s very difficult in these circumstances to expect that,” Golmier said.

During a recent Facebook livestream hosted by the Anti-Carceral Group, a former Bordeaux inmate named Francis testified about his experience there.

He was released at the end of January after serving a sentence under 24 months – but even then, he’d witnessed both waves of the COVID-19 pandemic play out in real-time.

“I used to own an organic vegetable farm, and I can tell you my barn was cleaner than sector C of Bordeaux,” Francis recounted in French on Wednesday evening.

In the first wave, Francis says inmates at Bordeaux were locked down in their cells for a full 12 days before they received any word as to why.

He still ended up contracting the virus during this lockdown.

“Then they gave me a three-minute shower, then they locked us up in another cell – a double cell – where I did another 14 days, locked up 24 hours on 24. No showers,” he explained.

“And don’t forget – by this time I would’ve been wearing the same clothes about 20 days. I didn’t have clean clothes.”

Golmier says similar stories are coming out of the St-Jerome detention centre, where there is a prominent Inuit population.

According to Public Security Ministry data, more than 10 per cent of the total population at St-Jerome identifies as First Nations or Inuit. As of Feb. 9, Quebec reported 19 cases of COVID-19 there.

In an email to APTN News, a spokesperson for the province’s Public Security Ministry pointed to a number of “preventative” measures  put in place since the initial COVID-19 outbreak last March.

“Since March 2020, anyone sentenced to intermittent imprisonment has been placed on medical absence. As a result, they are assigned to their home during times when they were to be incarcerated, rather than having to report to the detention facility,” the emailed statement reads.

According to the statement, in May 2020, the ministry also made it possible for certain incarcerated people – mainly those over 65, pregnant, or those nearing the end of their sentence – to serve the remainder under house arrest.

They didn’t provide any hard data indicating how many releases were expedited due to COVID-19.

But Golmier says, from a legal perspective, the release process is not so simple.

“The problem is that when you apply [those conditions] – it concerns very few people. So concretely, I haven’t been observing more releases,” Golmier explained, while specifying only the Parole Board of Quebec has the power to grant early or conditional releases.

“The problem is, the Parole Board of Quebec doesn’t have any policies considering the situation with COVID. So they don’t release more people. They don’t take that into account as a factor,” she added.

Early release is what the Anti-Carceral Group, and Quebec-based Human Rights group, the Ligue des Droits et Libertes (LDL), are pushing for as a risk-management solution.

“We would have believed that the Legault government, the Ministry of Public Security, and the management of detention centres would have learned from the mistakes made during the first wave,” Lucie Lemonde, LDL spokesperson, said in a statement.

“Clearly, that is not the case,” she added.

APTN contacted the province’s Health Ministry to inquire about whether the vaccine roll-out would be adjusted to respond to the jail outbreaks.

Following an outbreak in Montreal’s homeless community, for example, surplus doses of the vaccine were re-directed and administered by frontline workers.

In an email, Health Ministry spokesperson Robert Maranda noted, in bold, there have been “no changes” to the priority list – health care workers and seniors remain at the top.

Prison inmates are currently among the fourth-priority group, along with the rest of the general population.

“We’ve repeated this since the beginning: vaccinations depend on the doses received in Quebec,” Maranda stated.

“Quebec remains dependent on the number of doses received from the Federal government, since the latter is responsible for the supply of the vaccine to the provinces and territories,” he added.

However, the risk of infection inside prisons is high – and very real, according to Golmier.

“Most of my clients – the majority – have been contaminated by COVID already,” she said.

“I have a lot of difficulty to understand why, in a democracy like Canada – or in Quebec – that this is happening,” Golmier added.

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