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

Nikita, a four-year-old German Shepherd that was attacked by a buck in a backyard in Esquimalt Sunday is lucky the injury wasn't more severe. (Photo contributed by Suzette Goldsworthy)
Esquimalt dog owner issues alert after deer injures German shepherd

Nikita needed stitches after an early morning encounter

The Victoria Police Department headquarters. (Black Press Media file photo)
Investigation launched into man’s death after arrest in Victoria

IIO investigation to determine if police actions or inaction played a role in the man’s death

(Black Press Media file photo)
Police arrest man covered in blood on heels of significant Saanich crash into woods

Resident calls in home invasion in progress after crash

Capital Regional District Animal Control say an eight-month-old Rottweiler bit a Langford mother and her child near Glen Lake on Nov. 19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Large dog attacks mother and child in Langford

Mother puts three-year-old on top of car to protect him

Victoria School for Ideal Education at 2820 Belmont Avenue is the second school in Greater Victoria with an active confirmed COVID-19 exposure. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)
Private school becomes second Greater Victoria school with COVID-19 exposure

Victoria School for Ideal Education follows Lakeview Christian School in Saanich

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 cross a street in downtown Vancouver, on Sunday, November 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. reports 17 COVID deaths, 1,933 new cases as hospitalizations surge over the weekend

There are 277 people in hospital, of whom 59 are in ICU or critical care

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers at the project site in Kitimat. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared last Thursday (Nov. 19). (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
Forty-one positive COVID-19 cases associated with the LNG Canada site outbreak in Kitimat

Thirty-four of the 41 cases remain active, according to Northern Health

Workers arrive at the Lynn Valley Care Centre seniors home, in North Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, March 14, 2020. It was the site of Canada’s first COVID-19 outbreak in a long-term care facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Rapid tests ‘not a panacea’ for care homes, Dr. Bonnie Henry says

B.C. lacks capacity for daily tests of thousands of workers

(Delta Police Department photo)
Cannabis edibles found in Halloween bag lead B.C. police to illegal lab

Delta police arrested a man and a woman while executing a warrant at a residential property Nov. 20

A woman being arrested at a Kelowna Value Village after refusing to wear a mask on Nov. 22.(@Jules50278750/Twitter)
VIDEO: Woman arrested for refusing to wear mask at Kelowna Value Village

RCMP claims the woman was uncooperative with officers, striking them a number of times and screaming

B.C. Liberal MLA Shirley Bond questions NDP government ministers in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 19, 2020. (Hansard TV)
Cabinet veteran Shirley Bond chosen interim leader of B.C. Liberals

28-member opposition prepares for December legislature session

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, November 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-19: What do rising positivity rates mean for B.C.? It’s not entirely clear

Coronavirus cases are on the rise but the province has not unveiled clear thresholds for further measures

A rider carves a path on Yanks Peak Saturday, Nov. 21. Two men from Prince George went missing on the mountain the next day. One of them, Colin Jalbert, made it back after digging out his sled from four feet under the snow. The other, Mike Harbak, is still missing. Local search and rescue teams went out looking Monday, Nov. 23. (Sam Fait Photo)
‘I could still be the one out there’: Snowmobiler rescued, 1 missing on northern B.C. mountain

As Quesnel search and rescue teams search for the remaining rider, Colin Jalbert is resting at home

Most Read