British Columbia

Prisons should consider safe release as a pandemic health measure: advocate

As prisons begin to allow visits for the first time after lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, one advocate says the provincial and federal prison systems should be looking at the safe release of prisoners as a public health measure. 

Prisons have been at the centre of numerous COVID-19 outbreaks across Canada

A CBC analysis found since the start of the pandemic, 600 inmates and 229 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and three people have died in federal or provincial correctional institutions, for which data was available. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

As prisons begin to allow visits for the first time after lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, one advocate says the provincial and federal prison systems should be looking at the safe release of prisoners as a public health measure. 

Prisons have been at the centre of a number of coronavirus outbreaks since the start of the pandemic, including one of the country's largest in B.C.'s Mission Correctional Facility where there were 120 COVID-19 cases and one death. A CBC investigation found coronavirus infection rates are five times higher in provincial jails and up to nine times higher in federal facilities than in the general population.

Meenakshi Mannoe, a member of the Vancouver Prison Justice Day Committee, says the conditions at prisons — like the limited ability for people to physically distance and very little access to personal protective equipment — put prisoners at a higher risk for the virus.

In addition, the response to trying to contain the virus — arbitrary lockdowns, stopping outside visits — have created an atmosphere of tension, fear and stress for many.

"That's had a tremendous impact on prisoners' mental health and well-being," Mannoe said to host Gloria Macarenko on CBC's On The Coast. 

CBC News explores why COVID-19 rates were so high in prisons:

A data analysis by CBC News suggests that COVID-19 infection rates are up to nine times higher among inmates at Canada’s jails than in the rest of the population, despite restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. 2:30

Although visits are resuming in prisons — with rules like 48 hour advance bookings, mandatory temperature checks, and the donning of masks — Mannoe said this is a good time to consider the safe release of prisoners, especially if a second wave of coronavirus cases comes to pass.

She says this is not just in the interest of the health of individual prisoners, but as a remedy to a larger, broader problems of mass incarceration.

For example, a report released in January 2020 by the Office of the Correctional Investigator found the over-representation of Indigenous people in federal custody reached a new historic high. At five per cent of the general population, Indigenous people make up 30 per cent of the federal prison population.

"We know that in prisons, both provincial and federal, there's a disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people as well as people living with mental health issues, people with disabilities, and people who have chronic health conditions, not just about COVID, but things like hepatitis C, HIV," she said. 

"We're looking at a population very impacted by the social determinants of health and we know that incarceration across the board is just bad for your health."

A prison guard keeps watch as medical workers walk at a secure mobile medical unit set up at the Abbotsford Regional Hospital to treat prisoners infected with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) from the Mission Institution Correctional Centre, in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada, April 18, 2020. (Jesse Winter/Reuters)

Some correctional facilities in the country have already seen drops in prison population coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Ontario released more than 2,000 inmates at the start of the pandemic in mid-March. In B.C., B.C. Corrections says its in-custody count declined from approximately 2,200 in mid-March to 1,500 in mid-May and has remained stable since that time.

In a statement to CBC, Correctional Services Canada and B.C. Corrections both said public safety is a paramount concern when releasing prisoners. 

"On average, 600 offenders are released a month. This occurs through parole, statutory release or expiration of sentence. It is important to note that a number of considerations go into release decision-making, with public safety being the paramount consideration," read the statement from Correctional Services Canada.

Mannoe says both institutions need to do more. 

"This broader moment [is...] a real opportunity to rethink prisons and incarceration," she said. 

"Let's start to look at ways that people can be in the community, held accountable for harms that they have done, but let's shift away from mass incarceration, predominantly of racialized people."

With files from On The Coast

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