8 inmates test positive for COVID-19 at Grand Valley Institution

Eight inmates have now tested positive for COVID-19 at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, which prisoner advocates say isn't surprising as it's "impossible to physically distance" at the prison.

Prisoner advocates call for more testing and release of inmates, say lack of physical distancing is a problem

The number of COVID-19 cases at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener has kept rising over the last two weeks. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

Eight inmates have now tested positive for COVID-19 at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, which prisoner advocates say isn't surprising as it's "impossible to physically distance" at the prison.

"The secure units when we were last there were double bunked. They have two women per room in some of the rooms," said Emilie Coyle, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

"It's already a place that doesn't have adequate health care. It's already a place that's impossible to keep we know why it's been spreading," said Coyle.

Grand Valley Institution, Canada's largest prison for women, is the only prison in Ontario with any COVID-19 cases. One correctional officer has also tested positive, according to the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

Kim Pate, an Ontario Senator and longtime prisoner advocate, says it's concerning that only inmates in segregation have their own toilets at the prison.

"Everywhere else people are having to share toilet facilities as well as kitchen facilities," Pate said. "I think there are significant concerns about the ability to physically distance."

Prison 'medically isolating inmates'

In a statement, Correctional Service Canada tells CBC News the prison isn't on lockdown, but some inmates are being kept in their cells as a precautionary measure.

"Protocol involves medically isolating inmates who show symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 to prevent the spread of infection," the statement from the correctional service said. "We have dedicated health services on site with the equipment needed to monitor and treat inmates." 

Grand Valley Institution has tested 89 women as of Tuesday, according to Correctional Service Canada. But advocates say that's not enough.

Senator Kim Pate listens to an inmate being held in segregation during a visit to Ontario's Millhaven Institution. She says it would be wise to test every woman for COVID-19 at Grand Valley Institution. (Senate of Canada)

Given the possibility of carriers being asymptomatic and the flow of people coming into and out of the prison, Coyle and Pate are calling on CSC to test every woman at the prison. Grand Valley Institution has a capacity of 250 inmates.

"I think it's really important that we utilize the tests in a way that keeps everybody in the community safe," said Coyle.

To cut down on the number of people coming through the prison, the correctional service says it's suspended visits to inmates, temporary absences, work releases for offenders, group education and transfers of inmates. 

Continued calls for early releases

Ultimately, inmate advocates say the early release of prisoners who are eligible for parole is the best way to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Early releases are already happening in Ontario jails, as well as prisons across parts of the United States, England and Turkey. But Pate says 90 to 100 inmates who should have been released on parole have been kept in Canadian federal prisons since the start of the pandemic.

Last month, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair asked the head of Canada's prison system and parole board to consider early release for some federal inmates.

Correctional Service Canada says it's "currently conducting an analysis of the offender population to be in a position to make evidence-based recommendations" on releasing inmates.

CBC reported on the first case of COVID-19 at Grand Valley Institution two weeks ago. Coyle says she's frustrated there's still no action for the women at the prison.

"They can't leave. And they're scared," said Coyle.


Julianne Hazlewood is a multimedia journalist who's worked at CBC newsrooms across the country as a host, video journalist, reporter and producer. Have a story idea?