The head of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies says the rising COVID-19 case count bodes ill for prison inmates, many of whom remain under partial lockdown without adequate health care.
A “toxic” relationship between correctional officers and inmates conflicts with guards’ de facto role as caregivers during the pandemic, said Emilie Coyle.
“They’ve compensated for the lack of ability to socially distance by locking people down in really restrictive ways, which has tremendously affected the mental health of prisoners,” Coyle said in a phone interview, calling the conditions in some institutions “atrocious.”
A “deficient” health-care system is aggravated by guidance from public health officials who are not familiar with prisons, resulting in punitive restrictions that “don’t equate to care,” she said.
Her advocacy group is calling on the federal government to release some offenders, as well as accused awaiting trial, so as to allow easier physical distancing behind bars, a step she says provinces have taken more readily than Ottawa.
The federal prison population fell by only two per cent to about 13,700 between March and April, while the number of Canadians incarcerated at provincial and territorial institutions dropped by 25 per cent to roughly 18,200 between February and April, according to Statistics Canada.
The changes came after Public Safety Minister Bill Blair asked the federal prison service and the parole board in March to consider releasing some inmates early to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Other steps included extended parole and alternatives for those awaiting trial or sentencing.
Coyle said federal inmates have been ensnared in a catch-22 that has prevented their release.
“What ended up happening was they shut everything down and nobody had access to programs, and the conditions of parole or release are usually that they’ve completed their programs within the institution.”
The chance of prison depopulation seems even more distant as case counts spike across the country, which raises the risk of transmission by via inmate transfers and correctional officers.
Five inmates recently tested positive for COVID-19 in Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta, the Correctional Service of Canada said this week.
Contact tracing is underway and testing is being offered at the three institutions affected, the agency said.
The five inmates — two in Drummondville, Que., one in Stony Mountain, Man., and two at the Edmonton Institution for Women — are medically isolated and being monitored.
None of the three federal facilities is currently allowing visitors.
As the second wave washes across Canada, the correctional service said it continues to screen employees and equip correctional officers and inmates with medical masks, on top of heightened cleaning measures and social restrictions.
“For example, in past months, we suspended visits and some activities in certain areas to limit comings and goings within our institutions,” spokeswoman Veronique Rioux said in an email.
“In addition, modified routines are in place, which means that movements are carefully considered within the institutions, including between ranges, to ensuring physical distancing is maintained.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.
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