Ottawa faces the prospect of having a public-health disaster on its hands as COVID-19 sweeps through a number of institutions in the federal prison system.
New figures supplied by Correctional Services Canada suggest that in the worst hit facilities, two out of every three prisoners tested have contracted the virus.
The stress of being sitting ducks is also ramping up tensions in some prisons.
“The whole jail is on the verge of a freak out. They’re not treating us well… It takes a toll on your mental health,” Dillan Cote, an inmate at Mission Institution in B.C., told my colleague, Justin Ling, in an interview.
Results across the federal system of 58 prisons indicate 177 of 533 inmates tested have contracted the virus. (The total federal prison population is around 14,000.)
But that number masks more severe outbreaks at facilities like Mission, where 60 inmates, of 85 tested, have the virus and one has died. To put that another way, 70 per cent of those tested are sick with COVID-19.
The Port-Cartier facility in Quebec has tested just 19 inmates, yet 14 of those have been infected.
At the Joliette Institution for Women, northeast of Montreal, 51 of the 76 offenders tested have coronavirus. Positive tests are not limited to inmates: 34 staff at Joliette have been infected; 13 at Port Cartier; and nine at Mission Institution, according to the Union of Correctional Officers.
Eight federal offenders have been hospitalized — five in B.C. and three in Quebec.
Bill Blair, the federal public safety minister, has said the government is aware of the “unique vulnerabilities” facing correctional institutions. His office pointed to measures taken to mitigate the spread of the virus, including suspending visits and work releases and providing masks to staff and inmates at facilities where outbreaks have occurred. Prisoners who tested positive at Port Cartier and Joliette have been medically isolated.
“We continue to look at options to see what further measures can be taken,” said a statement issued by Blair’s office.
Perhaps the minister should talk to some inmates. They have plenty of ideas for “further options.”
Cote, who is serving a six-year sentence for robbery and motor vehicle theft in Mission Institution, told Ling he has asked for hand sanitizer but claims he was refused by one officer, who, Cote alleges, said “you guys will just drink it.”
Cote described a prison that was sluggish in its response to the threat of the virus and has been slapdash about introducing health and safety measures since it hit.
The first positive tests in federal prisons were announced at the end of March but Mission didn’t go into lockdown until April 3rd, Cote said.
Inmates haven’t had fresh air or exercise for 15 days, he claims. For the first week, they were kept in their cells, without access to showers.
He told Ling that one prisoner who tested positive continued to clean the unit where Cote is confined.
New figures suggest that in the worst hit facilities, two out of every three prisoners tested have contracted the virus
Guards who are meant to spray door-handles with disinfectant and change their gloves when passing out food containers are less careful than they could be, he said.
The stress is compounded by disruptions to the food supply. “We’re not getting fed properly,” Cote alleged. “The food is arriving cold and some days we get tiny portions, only enough to feed a little kid. It’s poor quality — worse than usual,” he said.
This combustible mix of fear and hunger has generated riots in prisons around the world since COVID hit and Canada is not immune.
“If they push it any further, I’m afraid people will go off. And if one or two or five go off, the whole jail will go off. We’ve had enough of what’s going on here,” Cote said.
Blair has asked the Correctional Services commissioner and the chair of the Parole Board to look at the early release of certain offenders.
In a press conference on Monday, he said “literally hundreds” of prisoners who do not pose a “significant” threat to the community have been released. He said 600 inmates are eligible for consideration for parole and the Parole Board has been working through that list.
Yet Cote said prisoners at Mission with less than six months to serve are still inside.
“My neighbour is worried he may die sitting in an institution when he is due out in six months. He said he feels like a sitting duck,” he said.
I put the Cote’s allegations to Corrections Canada Monday morning requesting a response. By Monday evening I had still not received one.
Whistleblowers inside the federal system deserve credit for pointing out the disconnect between the official rhetoric and the real world behind bars — a reality check that is not always well-received.
One inmate at the Joyceville facility in Ontario who reached out to Ling was warned by a correctional officer that there are repercussions for every action and the prisoner might want to think about that before raising flags.
But Canadians deserve to know the truth.
There have been moves to mitigate the spread of the disease in prisons but more could be done — a more vigorous de-incarceration plan, medical isolation in all affected facilities, and distribution of hand sanitizer, for example.
Regardless of their crimes, the state owes prisoners a duty of care.
They are expected to pay their debt to society by giving up their freedom, not their lives.