Prisons are excellent sources for community transmission of illness. There is little opportunity for social distancing, which is being recommended throughout the world by all medical professionals and government officials, to avoid the spread of the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus.
Inmates are often placed in cells with another inmate and correctional officers and other staff at the institutions experience close contact with prisoners, especially during searches and admissions. Due to these circumstances, Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has taken measures to prevent an outbreak within their institutions.
Just yesterday, we learned that an inmate at the Toronto South Detention Centre is the first in Ontario to test positive for COVID-19. The inmate was immediately placed in isolation and a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General has confirmed that steps have been taken to protect staff and other inmates at the facility.
MEASURES IN PLACE TO PROTECT CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS
Martine Rondeau, spokesperson for CSC, ensures that protocols are in place to prevent COVID-19, including increased sanitization and cleaning regimens and providing increased Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for staff, from spreading through the country’s jails.
Another measure in place is the suspension of visits to all Canadian inmates. CSC has advised that it will not charge prisoners for phone calls and will make efforts to increase visits through video conferencing. However, inmates continue to meet with legal counsel and continue to be transfered between courts and institutions.
In Ontario it was announced that effective March 13, 2020, in an effort to reduce the potential spread of the virus, intermittent inmates (those who are deemed low-risk by the courts and live and work in the community between Monday and Friday) who serve time on the weekends will be required to attend their reporting facility at which time they will given a temporary absence from custody and permitted to return home. This change has been extended to allow the issuance of temporary absences beyond the 72-hour maximum and does not require reporting to a correctional facility every weekend.
Inmates with temporary absences who are near the end of their sentence will be carefully assessed to ensure they are at a low risk to reoffend and will be considered for early release.
Another change enacted in Ontario is the provision of alternate options for hearings of the Ontario Parole Board by electronic or written methods.
According to Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services spokesperson Brent Ross:
No inmate has tested positive for COVID-19 in any of our correctional institutions.
Staff are advised to monitor their own health, and report to management any changes to their health status. There are also processes in place to address environment cleaning. Our correctional facilities are inspected and thoroughly cleaned daily and/or as required. Proper hand washing and cough/sneezing etiquette has also been communicated to staff and inmates.
CORRECTIONAL OFFICER CONTRACTED THE VIRUS
A correctional officer at the Toronto South Detention Centre in Etobicoke has tested positive for COVID-19. He recently returned from Europe and went back to work before the 14-day isolation guidelines were enacted and is currently being treated in hospital. His last shift was on March 11, at which point he was working in the video courtroom and had escorting and overseeing inmates who were making court appearances via video conferencing.
A number of correctional officers who were in contact with the infected officer have recently been placed in self-isolation. Some inmates are also in self-isolation in the centre’s infirmary. It is unclear at this time how many inmates may have been in contact with the infected officer.
Kristy Denette, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, stated:
Out of respect for the officer’s health privacy we will not be commenting directly on the officer’s health nor are we in a position to confirm any health related matters. The ministry has been in contact with the local public health unit in response to COVID-19 to ensure the continued health and wellbeing of our staff and those in our custody.
In a similar situation, a contractor who had worked at the South West Detention Centre near Windsor on March 12 and 13 has also been confirmed to have COVID-19. After showing symptoms, he was ordered into self-isolation on March 14 and positive test results confirmed that he had the virus on March 18. Although he did not have any direct interaction with the inmates, he may have interacted with staff in the detention centre.
ADVOCATES CALL FOR THE RELEASE OF VULNERABLE WOMEN FROM PRISON
The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, an association that works on issues affecting women and girls in the justice system, is advocating for the release of vulnerable women from the prison system during the pandemic.
The organization is asking the Correctional Service of Canada to release women who are eligible for parole, women who are over 50 years of age, women with chronic health conditions, Indigenous women and those that are in the mother-child program.
Executive Director Emilie Coyle stated:
The challenge is, when you have people who are living in very close quarters and who cannot escape and socially isolate themselves the concern for us is that something like the COVID-19 virus will spread very quickly. For women, whose health is already compromised in many ways, it could be potentially very deadly for them.
According to Coyle, the majority of women in prison are there in regards to poverty-related crimes and those that are violent offenders have often acted in self-defence.
Furthermore, the ban on visitors for those that are incarcerated makes the conditions even worse for them and isolates them from their family, friends and supporters.
We will continue to follow the government’s response to the pandemic and how it will effect the Canadian justice system and will provide updates in this blog.
If you have been charged with a criminal offence or have any questions regarding your legal rights, it is recommended that you contact an experienced criminal defence lawyer. The lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP have many years of experience defending a wide variety of criminal offences. Contact our office today online or at 905-404-1947. We offer a 24-hour phone service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice at all times.