Grand Valley inmates face 'restrictive conditions' under pandemic measures: advocate
No positive COVID-19 cases in inmates at Grand Valley in nearly a year
The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies says it is concerned as inmates at the Grand Valley Institution for Women continue to live under a "modified routine" for five straight months — despite no new COVID-19 cases among inmates since Spring 2020.
Like many other prisons across the country, Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener has been operating under a modified routine for health purposes since November 2020.
The conditions limit some movements within the prison through a cohorting system to ensure physical distancing is maintained.
"Part of this modified routine means that inmates may be moved one at a time or in small groups to maintain physical distancing measures and keep staff and inmates as safe as possible," according to a statement from Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).
It noted in-person visits have also been suspended. The measure was implemented in consultation with public health authorizes and CSC due to increasing community COVID-19 transmission rates.
However, Emilie Coyle, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said this has had a significant impact on the physical and mental health of inmates.
"We are worried about the mental health of people inside subjected to even more restrictive conditions within an already restrictive prison system, but on top of that, we don't think the system itself is working to keep people as safe as it should," she told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.
Coyle said cohorting has limited access to programming, which has implications for the mental health of inmates — and possibly their release dates.
"Programming is essential to people receiving their release dates and completing their correctional plans ... inside the institution. So, if they're unable to complete their correctional plans on time, then they're not going to be able to go before the parole board on time and released as quickly. And so that's a really big problem," she said.
Coyle said the suspension of in-person visits is also concerning for several reasons: "That means you can't see your loved ones, you can't see your children … they're not able to see their other family members. We can't go in. We're not able to monitor the conditions of confinement within the institutions … Without us being able to go in, without the office of the correctional investigator going in, that should be concerning to everyone."
Additionally, Coyle said she's heard of appointments with doctors and mental health care providers being cancelled — though not specifically at Grand Valley Institution.
"It's increasing the tension in the institutions and incidents of egregious use of force from the staff because everyone has this mental health burden which is increased by this cohorting system and everyone is exhausted. We can't underscore the isolation and the impact of isolation that has on people," she said.
Coyle said while prisoners are cohorting, staff members have been moving between cohorts, which she says puts inmates at risk.
A subsequent request to CSC for comment about these concerns was not received in time for publication.
CSC said institutions, including Grand Valley, screen anyone entering the facility and test on site — including asymptomatic testing.
During a modified routine, the CSC website said inmates are informed of their rights including the right to a legal counsel, to contact organizations such as Elizabeth Fry Societies and submit complaints of grievances.
"All reasonable efforts will be made to provide inmates with opportunities to be out of their cell to attend activities of daily living (e.g., opportunity to shower), yard time, access to telephone calls, interaction with others on the range with appropriate infection and control measures in place," explains CSC on its website, noting inmates are seen regularly to identify their needs to facilitate referrals to services such as health care.
"We also have an extensive colour-coded risk management process in place where we work with unions, partners, experts and elders to make decisions related to our sites, based on community transmission rates, to ensure we are taking all possible measures to mitigate risk in all of our operations," a CSC spokesperson said in an email to CBC K-W.
The institution's health care officials and CSC officials determine the termination of a modified routine, a decision that is reviewed weekly.
Grand Valley Institution was previously under a modified routine between March and July 2020. In that time, eight inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 and have since recovered.
There are no positive cases at the institution. To date, there has been 404 COVID-19 tests administered to inmates at Grand Valley.