Release or isolate: The debate on how to help people inside Canada’s prisons and jails during COVID-19

The union representing 16,000 correctional service employees, parole officers and prisons guards say its members are overworked, understaffed, and facing “enormous pressure.”

In a recent statement, the president of the Union of Safety and Justice Employees says there are “real concerns” about the potential impact of expediting release for some offenders in response to confirmed COVID-19 breakouts in federal prisons.

Stan Stapleton says early release options will be “extremely limited” without a “realistic plan” for where offenders will live and how they will manage.

“This is particularly the case for many Indigenous offenders whose communities will confront immense challenges in re-integrating them, in urban and rural Canada,” Stapleton said in the statement.

“There are currently not enough staff in federal penitentiaries or community parole offices to do risk analysis throughout the country, given how overworked federal parole officers and others in case management teams have been for years,” he added.

Last week, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair requested that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) and the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) to weigh their options and consider exceptional measures to prevent or control outbreaks – including “measures that could be taken to facilitate early release for certain offenders,”

In an email, Blair’s press secretary said he did not specifically request that inmates be released, but has “requested options” and “measures that could be taken to facilitate early release for certain offenders.”

“We know the unique risks inherent to prisons. CSC has taken a number of steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in its institutions,” said an email from Blair’s office. “This pandemic continues to evolve, and we have been clear that our response will as well.”

When the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported at Port Cartier, a maximum-security facility in Quebec, CSC issued a statement to ensure they were following “strict protocols” to avoid further spread, including lockdown and “dedicated health care” for inmates developing symptoms.

In addition, CSC noted a number of “preventative measures” taken in all its operations across the country, including deep cleaning, temporary use of masks for workers, “enhanced or active screening” – including temperature-taking – for inmates, as well as suspending visits and temporary absences.

“As the medical professionals are saying, once this takes hold – it could spread like wildfire through the prisons,” said Senator Kim Pate, who is the former director of the Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and continues to be in regular contact with both inmates and their families.

“What they need to be doing is limiting the number of people in the prisons, encouraging attorneys general and the provinces, territories, and Federally, to encourage police officers, prosecutors, and judges to exercise their discretion and not jail people if it’s not required by public safety,” she said.

By keeping people behind bars and possibly exposed to COVID-19, Pate said, we run the risk of overwhelming local medical systems in the rural areas where most prisons are located.

“One in four – so 25 per cent of the prison population are people who are elderly, or who have already pre-existing health conditions. Conditions that could not only make them more compromised in terms of their own immune systems, but putting them more at risk of dying from this disease.”

David Milgaard, a prison advocate who spent two decades behind bars after being falsely accused and convicted of murder, said the issue boils down to saving lives.

“Could you imagine just for the moment how would you feel to be inside a penitentiary – there’s no safety net,” Milgaard explained. “There’s no possibility that you’re going to survive.

“This situation is a time bomb, and they know it.”

Tensions rising in provincial jails

The problems and fears have also trickled down into provincial jails, which house low-risk offenders serving sentences of under two years – or people who are accused of committing severe crimes and are waiting on their trial.

Even if the early release procedures begin in federal penitentiaries, Blair’s request isn’t necessarily enough to compel provincial governments to follow suit, and expedite the release process in their respective jails.

Inmates in provincial jails began reaching out to APTN last week, expressing frustration and fear at the conditions within their respective institutions.

“This virus thing – they don’t do no cleaning. They pretty much laugh at it,” one inmate at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) said in a phone interview. “We clean the cells, we don’t have no masks, no gloves, none of that.”

The jail houses offenders serving under two year sentences, as well as violent offenders awaiting court dates and eventual transfer to a Federal prison.

Another inmate at OCDC, a First Nations man with respiratory issues, rebuffed the claim that prison employees are doing temperature checks on inmates.

“The institution is telling the courthouse that they’re giving us temperature checks twice a day. Never once have I ever been getting a temperature check,” Jordan Land told APTN last week.

“It’s a bad place to be right now.”

In December, Land – who hails from Miawpukek First Nation in Newfoundland – pleaded guilty to dangerous operation of a vehicle causing death, and failing to stop at the scene of a collision causing death.

Shortly after voicing his concerns, Land followed up to report he’d faced retaliation and “inhumane” treatment from prison officials – including placement in segregation – despite having a history of respiratory problems.

“When I was there, they didn’t give me any sheets or blankets. I was so cold, I was shivering so bad I couldn’t even sleepy,” Land said in a phone interview Monday. “They had me in a cell beside a guy who was on standby for results whether he is positive or negative for COVID.”

“They wouldn’t give me any toilet paper. No hygiene products. Nothing to keep myself clean,” Land added.

In an emailed statement, Ontario’s Office of the Solicitor General told APTN “the government continues to evaluate all measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within our correctional system. Our priority remains the health and safety of all those in our custody.”

“Obviously this is a challenging time for anyone who has a role to play in the justice system,” explained Dominque Smith, the Ottawa-based criminal defense lawyer who represents Jordan Land. “It’s an extraordinarily stressful time for someone in custody accused.”

“Corrections officers were refusing to bring inmates to the phones and to the television screens for their video appearances, and higher-ups at the jail ended up being the ones who would have to carry out these tasks,” he said.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union confirmed there was a work refusal by the guards that lasted half a day.

According to Smith, jail officials are also trying to facilitate social distancing as much as possible while bearing in mind that jails are not designed to facilitate it.

“I guess it speaks to just how scary a place jails are right now for anyone who has to spend any amount of time there,” Smith added. “We can only imagine what it’s like for an inmate who’s there 24/7. You have new inmates who are coming in regularly, so the staff don’t know whether or not the inmates have COVID-19 when they arrive at the jail.”

In Quebec, which now leads with the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada as of this posting, there are at least eight provincial institutions that are using segregation, even solitary confinement, as means to control spread of the virus.

This raises significant mental health concerns, according to lawyers who deal with prisoner’s rights.

“Nowadays we’re talking a lot about the problems – the psychiatric/psychological issues that comes with putting people in segregation. Which means 23-24 hours for a couple of days, weeks, or months,” explained Nadia Golmier, a corrections lawyer based in Montreal.

“[It] can have a disastrous impact on your mental health. And this has been proven by many psychologists,” she added.

According to Golmier, Quebec Superior Court has already ruled that segregation, if used for 15 consecutive days or more, is considered “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“A lot of people are panicking right now,” Golmier added.

Two letters recently penned by the Quebec Association of Carceral Lawyers – which Golmier belongs to – requested that Premier Francois Legault consider conditional release for inmates serving less than six months, scheduled to be released in six months, over the age of 70, as well as inmates who have a chronic illness, are pregnant, or awaiting trial.

It’s estimated nearly half of the people in jail awaiting trial will never face a conviction.

As the debate and process continues to play out, those who have lived the experience – like Milgaard – say the simplest decisions are the ones motivated by compassion.

“These people are really no different from you and me,” Milgaard said. “We dream and want to be special people who care, and who love others. And they dream, and want to be special people who care and love others.”

“No one has a right to give them a death sentence,” he added.