Inmates display a sign reading in Spanish “More than 30 dead” at La Modelo jail in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday, March 22, 2020. Violence broke out in the prison out of inmates’ fears that authorities are not doing enough to prevent coronavirus inside overcrowded prisons. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

Inmates display a sign reading in Spanish “More than 30 dead” at La Modelo jail in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday, March 22, 2020. Violence broke out in the prison out of inmates’ fears that authorities are not doing enough to prevent coronavirus inside overcrowded prisons. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

Should non-violent offenders be released from prison to avoid COVID-19 spread?

Union of BC Indian Chiefs calling on the province to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus

Prisoners in the U.S. and parts of the U.K. could be released from jail early as the latest move by officials to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Here in B.C, a group of Indigenous chiefs are joining a chorus of other advocates nationwide in calling for similar measures for non-violent offenders.

“Crisis reactions have allowed the most vulnerable people to be overlooked, and without immediate attention and drastic interventions, COVID-19 threatens the safety and well-being of incarcerated people across British Columbia and Canada,” the Union of BC Indian Chiefs said in a March 24 open letter to provincial and federal ministers.

“Over-crowding and insufficient sanitation could cause the virus to spread rapidly in correctional facilities, while insufficient medical and mental health resources increase its lethality.”

Jails act as ‘petri dishes’ for diseases, researcher says

Martha Paynter, a nurse who researches prisoner health as part of her doctoral studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said prisons and jails are “petri dishes” where disease spreads quickly and inmates can do little to isolate themselves for protection.

“People who are inside cannot easily get away from others – there is poor ventilation, little time outside and a lack of hygiene products,” she said. “It is considered contraband to have access to alcohol-based substances like hand sanitizer. They’re lucky to get a bar of soap. It’s terrifying.”

READ MORE: Indefinite solitary confinement in prisons unconstitutional

James Bloomfield, president of the Prairies region for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said COVID-19 fear has crept inside the institutions.

“It gets pretty complicated when you start housing hundreds of people together,” he said. “We’re at the stage now where we’re trying to look at all of our protective equipment, gloves, masks, making sure we’ve got enough of that type of stuff, disinfectants.”

He said a constant flow of visitors, workers and medical staff make the institution vulnerable to infection.

“We can’t isolate everyone either,” he said from Winnipeg. “We’ve got 800 people at Stony Mountain (Institution) for example and when you start trying to isolate, it’s impossible.”

“If it does get in, we’re going to be bringing it home – the officers bringing it home to their families.”

Toronto criminal defence lawyer Daniel Brown said it’s only a matter of time before an inmate contracts the virus. He’s worried for his clients.

“There’s no way the jails can address the health concerns raised by a pandemic — they don’t have the facilities, they don’t have the ability to self-isolate,” he said. “Jails are overcrowded and underfunded. The staff aren’t equipped to deal with a crisis like this.”

There has not been a confirmed COVID-19 case inside a B.C. prison, as of March 26, but the group of First Nations leaders wants to see preventative action. Members fear inaction could be disproportionately felt by Indigenous people, who remain incarcerated at dramatically higher levels across the country.

In addition to releasing low-risk and non-violent offenders, Indigenous leaders want the federal government to create release plans for those nearing eligibility for parole or statutory release, as well as immediately decarcerate all Indigenous youth in custody wherever possible.

They also want corrections facilities to implement plans to treat inmates who contract the virus without relying on the over-use of solitary confinement.

Because most prisons have restricted access to visitors in order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, they also want the Correctional Service of Canada to provide free calling and video-calling access for all incarcerated people.

According to officials with Canada’s correctional services department, facilities have suspended all temporary absences of offenders unless medically necessary, work releases for offenders and all inter-regional and international transfers of inmates.

Alberta takes measures to keep prisoners safe

As officials around the globe work to control social contact to mitigate the spread of the virus while also keeping the peace, Italy has seen widespread unrest. On March 12, officials there announced 12 prisoners had died and 16 others escaped after a riot broke out in response to lockdown protocols which stopped or limited normal family visits. Forty guards were also injured.

A federal prison in central Alberta which houses 470 inmates was placed on lockdown earlier this month, out of precaution after a group for less than 10 inmates showed flu-like symptoms. They were tested for the novel coronavirus, and isolated as they awaited test results.

READ MORE: Reduce prison populations to fend against COVID-19 disaster, Alberta lawyers say

Since then, Alberta has allowed those sentenced to weekend jail time to self-isolate on house arrest and is assessing the possibility of youth offenders to also serve their sentence at home.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged this week that prisoners are at higher risk of contracting and spreading the virus, but did not say whether federal officials have been in contact with provinces about a nationwide plan.

In a statement to Black Press Media, the Correctional Service of Canada said officials “are examining what options are available to us in collaboration with the Parole Board of Canada and what flexibilities there are to safely release offenders into the community.”

The B.C. government did not respond to requests for comment by deadline. Earlier this month, it told Black Press Media that BC Corrections has been in daily pandemic planning meetings with the provincial correctional health service team, relating to cleaning schedules, intake and release procedures, along with educational and other programs for people in custody.

“We are building on the baseline of procedures and approaches developed in response to the previous H1N1 influenza.”

— With files from The Canadian Press


@ashwadhwani
ashley.wadhwani@bpdigital.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The construction zone remains for now at Clover Point, but plans for a new pedestrian zone and partially closed traffic loop were approved by Victoria councillors on Thursday. (Don Descoteau/News Staff)
Victoria council compromises with partial closure of Clover Point

Option preserves parking 14 spots facing ocean, creates more pedestrian space

(Black Press Media file photo)
Trees Cannabis to reignite downtown Victoria location as licensed store

The dispensary will reopen its 230 Cook St. location on Saturday

A wind warning is in effect for Greater Victoria Thursday afternoon. (Black Press Media file photo)
Strong winds predicted for Greater Victoria

Environment Canada issues warning for Thursday afternoon

Sergeant Francis Dion with the box containing HMCS Calgary’s new secret mascot costume. (HMCSNCSMCalgary/Facebook)
Don Devenney is a Goldstream Gazette 2021 Local Hero as Community Builder of the year. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)
West Shore volunteer’s efforts an exercise in adventurous pursuits

Don Devenney is the 2021 recipient of the Community Builder Award

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of Feb. 23

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Black Press Media File Photo)
POLL: Are you struggling with Greater Victoria’s cost of housing?

While Victoria remains one of the most expensive cities in the country… Continue reading

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools is preparing a rapid response team proposal for submission to the B.C. Ministry of Education. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district chosen as COVID-19 rapid response team

Team to consist of SD68 and Island Health staff, according to B.C. Ministry of Education

A new survey has found that virtual visits are British Columbian’s preferred way to see the doctor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)
Majority of British Columbians now prefer routine virtual doctor’s visits: study

More than 82% feel virtual health options reduce wait times, 64% think they lead to better health

Captain and Maria, a pair of big and affectionate akbash dogs, must be adopted together because they are so closely bonded. (SPCA image)
Shuswap SPCA seeks forever home for inseparable Akbash dogs

A fundraiser to help medical expenses for Captain and Maria earned over 10 times its goal

The missing camper heard a GSAR helicopter, and ran from his tree well waving his arms. File photo
Man trapped on Manning mountain did nearly everything right to survive: SAR

The winter experienced camper was overwhelmed by snow conditions

Castlegar doctor Megan Taylor contracted COVID-19 in November. This photo was taken before the pandemic. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay doctor shares experience contracting COVID-19

Castlegar doctor shares her COVID experience

Ashley Paxman, 29, is in the ICU after being struck by a vehicle along Highway 97 Feb. 18, 2021. She remains in critical condition. (GoFundMe)
Okanagan woman in ICU with broken bones in face after being struck by car

She remains in serious condition following Feb. 18 incident

Most Read