Prisons are Becoming a Death Sentence Due to COVID-19:Letter to Minister of Public Safety

Prisons are Becoming a Death Sentence Due to COVID-19:Letter to Minister of Public Safety

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April 23, 2020

Open letter to the Minister of Public Safety

Dear Mr. Blair,

As Canada continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, for incarcerated individuals the disease marks a return of a potential death penalty that Canada sought to abolish in 1976.

Substandard health care, poor ventilation, close-confined, and crowded spaces create a deadly cocktail for prison inmates attempting to avoid transmission of the disease. As many prisoners live with disproportionate underlying health conditions that cause them to be immunocompromised, their increased risk of contracting COVID-19 continues to provide an environment where the disease will not only exist but thrive. 

With Mission, B.C. being the site of the first novel coronavirus death in our federal prisons, the outbreak continues to spread across Canadian prison institutions as we see updated cases exponentially grow every single day.

Your response to Canada’s first COVID-19 prisoner death does little to mitigate the situation. “Our greatest responsibility is keeping Canadians safe — that includes those in our correctional institutions,” while your words are well intended, what’s resulted is an impending disaster. As the rates of infection and number of cases continue to rise across Canada increasing the inevitable death toll, the failures of your ministry and Correctional Service of Canada reflect actions that are not only contributing to the spread of the contagion but a clear violation of the state’s duty to care for prisoners regardless of their crimes. 

As scarcity continues for basic necessities such as hand sanitizers, N95 masks, gowns, and disinfecting soap, these institutions are no longer safe for prisoners who share payphones with hundreds of others, line up for medication and food, and who live in constant close proximity to one another in institutions that often far exceed stated capacity. 

With an already crowded prison system that has become a breeding ground for the disease, any effort which fails to decarcerate our prisons, jails, and immigration detention facilities is sure to be equally if not more fatal than the effects we are seeing in our long-term facilities across the nation. 

According to Correctional Services Canada, as of April 22nd more than 189 federal inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. With rates of infection totaling almost 70 percent for those who have been tested, the catastrophic situation developing cannot be continued to be mitigated through attempts of isolation, increased cleaning, and improved hygiene. While ‘medical isolation’ attempts to prevent the spread of the disease, the use of solitary confinement units to house sick inmates has lasting impacts that may worsen the problems they were designed to solve. 

For those who may be already infected, any application of measures should ensure that their already restrictive liberties are not further infringed upon. The use of confinement as a harm reduction measure creates grave concern. Prolonged confinement in excess of 15 consecutive days has been deemed to be inhumane by the United Nations and should be prohibited in the case where potential mental and physical disabilities may be exacerbated. 

As Public Health officials continue to advocate for increased testing across Canada, just 533 inmates to date have been tested since the beginning of the pandemic despite a population of 15,000 prisoners. We are witnessing the disease disproportionately impact Indigenous people as senior health officials continue to verify that almost 40% of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Mission Institution are Indigenous inmates. Adopting the rates of infection (70%) that we are witnessing across institutions such a Joliette, the potential for 10,500 cases existing across all institutions occurs. While the unique vulnerabilities of adapting to COVID-19 while maintaining public safety may remain a concern for yourself and ministry, the rapidly evolving outbreaks pose a greater immediate threat to everyone if failure to release and monitor prisoners outside of institutions does not occur. Institutional defects such as cramped spacing, mass incarceration, and appalling hygiene are simply not going to be overturned through policy directives and the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE). The only available method to reduce the resulting infections is to substantially reduce the population in these institutions. 

Advocates including the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies have said, "This kind of response to managing an infection lacks humanity and any form of dignity. It has also, clearly, proven ineffective in containing the spread." 

While critics may potentially mischaracterize the use of release as a “get out of jail free card”, the reality remains that these prisoners have not been sentenced to death nor have they been sentenced to receive permanent afflictions due to their exposure of COVID-19 in prisons. 

            As a country that prides itself on equality, we are also calling for equality for all in its response to the challenges faced in the pandemic. Although currently resulting in a crisis within a crisis, the experiences faced by those incarcerated do not have to be further punitive. As the objective of reintegrating many of these individuals back into society continues to be the mandate of your ministry, we are calling for the release of prisoners who do not provide an imminent threat of violence to society. While the consequential impact of COVID-19 continues to impact every sector of society, prison health must not be ignored. Prison health is public health. 

 

Garry Balaganthan, Julia Mann, and Dr. Dawn Moore

Law and Legal Studies Department, Carleton University