Luciana Infusino-Tomei has been left alone to care for her young daughter during the COVID-19 pandemic after her husband was sent to prison last year on a drug-related charge.
The 38-year-old woman from Vaughan, Ont., is one of many worrying about the health and safety of their incarcerated loved ones, whose living arrangements make them particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus that has so far infected thousands of people and killed dozens across the country.
“Sometimes I find myself having to hold back my tears,” Infusino-Tomei says. ”My anxiety is through the roof, and so is my husband’s, because he is away from us.”
She says she hasn’t been able to get support in caring for their 19-month-old because her parents are older and in poor health.
Her husband, Adrian Tomei, is serving a three-year sentence at Beaver Creek Institution north of Toronto, after he pleaded guilty last year to possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking.
Infusino-Tomei says people like her 33-year-old husband — who have no other criminal history, were convicted of a non-violent crime and have a safe place to stay — should be released from prison, where she fears COVID-19 would spread uncontrollably.
“There is no excuse for making bad decisions,” she says. “He is paying his dues. He plead guilty from the onset and he was a man from the beginning by standing up and facing the music.”
But she says prisoners are unable to self-isolate and have limited access to hygiene and sanitary products, so sending those who are not a risk to public safety may be the best thing during a pandemic.
“We know mass quarantines don’t work because of those people left on cruise ships for weeks at a time,” Infusino-Tomei says. “If something like that happens in prison, it’s going to be far more dangerous, far more catastrophic on a far larger scale.”
She says her husband has applied for parole by exception and is working with a lawyer in Kingtson, Ont.
Fergus J. (Chip) O’Connor, Tomei’s parole lawyer, cites a section of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that allows early release for an offender for whom continued confinement would constitute an excessive hardship.
“My argument is that the pandemic is a public health risk for prisoners and the risk of getting the virus is a hardship that was not previously foreseen,” O’Connor says.
He says he has suggested to the commissioner of corrections and the Parole Board of Canada that efforts should be made to release non-violent prisoners soon, as the pandemic is expected to peak in Canada in the coming weeks.
He, as well as other legal advocates in Canada, are also calling for the government to recognize parole officers as essential workers, since they play a key role in getting applications processed.
“I’m not asking that they let everybody out of jail,” O’Connor says.
“But if they would just take that step, and if they had the political will to do so, then we could reduce the prison population significantly, put people in their homes and it would … flatten the curve.”
He notes he has many clients who are older or have compromised immune systems that would cause major complications if they were to get the novel coronavirus.
Speaking Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government was working “very closely” with the corrections system. He said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair would have more to say on the issue at a later time.
“This is something we are digging into very carefully because we need to make sure that we’re keeping everyone safe in this country,” he said.
In a statement, the Correctional Service of Canada says measures such as a contingency planning for food, supplies and necessary medical equipment has been adopted.
“CSC has taken full inventory of existing personal protective equipment supplies and has worked with the Public Health Agency of Canada to purchase additional supplies as necessary,” it says.
“We have also distributed additional soap, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer to staff and inmates and we are educating staff and inmates on the prevention and spread of illness, including the importance of good hygiene practices.”
The CSC, as well as the Blair’s office, says there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the federal system.
But, the province of Ontario confirmed Thursday that an inmate and corrections officer at the South Toronto Detention Centre tested positive. Saskatchewan announced Friday that two workers at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre also contracted the virus.
It’s something that worries Infusino-Tomei, who says it’s just a matter of time before COVID-19 enters the federal system.
“If we want to get out of this with the fewest deaths … the only way to do that is to give these inmates an opportunity to isolate,” she says.
“Let’s not look back and say we should have done something, let’s do something now while there is still time to save lives.”
Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press
– With files from Katya Slepian, Black Press Media