Canada's prison watchdog calls out federal corrections for 'extreme' confinement as COVID-19 cases surge

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government is looking into a report by the federal correctional investigator that concludes the human rights of prisoners are being violated due to measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Inmates who are sick or waiting for test results only allowed about 20 minutes a day outside their cells

A prison cell at the Port-Cartier institution, a maximum-security penitentiary on Quebec's North Shore. It was the first penal institution to report cases of COVID-19 in the province. (Correctional Investigator of Canada)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government is looking into a report by the federal correctional investigator that concludes the human rights of prisoners are being violated due to measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"We have taken a number of strong measures in corrections facilities to protect inmates and staff members from COVID-19," Trudeau said during his daily briefing Saturday.

"I am aware of the report put out yesterday, and we are following up on the details."

Correctional Investigator of Canada Ivan Zinger's report, released Friday afternoon, found that conditions of confinement are "extremely difficult" at institutions experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.

As of Thursday, five of 43 penitentiaries have experienced or are now managing an active outbreak. Of the 195 inmates across the country who have tested positive, 122 are in Quebec. Four inmates in Quebec were in hospital, as of Friday.

Those who have been diagnosed with the virus or are awaiting test results are placed in what is called medical isolation — akin to a public health quarantine order, wrote Zinger, who acts as an ombudsman for inmates.

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Zinger said those inmates are allowed about 20 minutes a day outside their cell to make a phone call or take a shower, and they are not allowed any time outdoors, in the prison yard. 

"These conditions obviously violate universal human rights standards," Zinger said, pointing out that while they may be justifiable in the context of a public health emergency, they force inmates to choose between taking a shower or making a phone call, for example, in their sliver of free time.

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On March 31, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair asked the heads of Canada's prison system and parole board to consider early release for some federal inmates to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 behind bars.

However, it's not clear how many, if any, federal prisoners have been released early due to the pandemic.

"Parole decisions consider all relevant and available information, including the unique circumstances of each offender, which may include health-related factors," a spokesperson for Blair's office said in an emailed statement to CBC earlier this week.

The Parole Board of Canada "has streamlined a number of its policies and processes" in response to the pandemic, the statement said.

'Extreme' conditions at Port-Cartier

Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger says inmates at Port-Cartier have been given access to masks, soap and cleaning supplies but not hand sanitizer because it is flammable. (Correctional Investigator of Canada)

Zinger made a personal visit to the Port-Cartier Institution, about 600 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, in mid-April. The maximum-security penitentiary on Quebec's North Shore was the first penal institution to report cases of COVID-19 in Quebec.

In an interview with CBC News, Zinger said he found prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19 or were awaiting test results were being held in isolation almost round the clock. Even those who are not believed to be infected are spending 23 hours a day inside their cells, due to the pandemic lockdown — conditions Zinger calls "extreme." 

"People are locked up basically in [a cell] the size of a bathroom that might be, you know, less than 100 square feet," Zinger said.

According to Jeff Wilkins, president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, COVID-19 appears to have been inadvertently spread through the facility by an infected employee who caught the virus through community transmission, sometime between March 9 and 14.

The prison went into lockdown mode on March 26, when the case was confirmed.

More than half of the facility's 200 front-line correctional officers were sent home for 14 days by local public health authorities in an effort to contain the spread, Wilkins said. 

"It was over the next [few] days that we learned first hand how incredibly viral COVID-19 is," Wilkins said. 

Right now, 13 guards at Port-Cartier are infected and off sick, according to the union.

Increased self-harm

"I understand the necessity to isolate and to impose restrictions," Zinger told CBC after his visit to Port Cartier.

But he said he is concerned about the toll on inmates who are facing these kinds of restrictions, even at prisons not affected by COVID-19. 

There have been increased instances of self-harm and suicide attempts across the country, he said, which he called "indicative of problematic conditions of confinement."

A man speaks to the media with Canadian flags arranged behind him.
Correctional Investigator of Canada Ivan Zinger visited Port-Cartier Institution, a federal penitentiary on Quebec's North Shore, this month before releasing his report on prison conditions under COVID-19 restrictions. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

He said there have also been increased reports of disciplinary problems, threats against staff, assault and protests by inmates. 

Zinger said Correctional Services Canada has tried to mitigate the effects of this isolation, in some cases, by topping up the phone cards of inmates, making it easier to do video conferencing, providing more access to televisions and giving prisoners three snacks a day. 

As more staff return from self-isolation, offenders are getting more recreation and shower time, which is helping, Wilkins said.

The union leader does make a distinction between solitary confinement and medical isolation.

"It's not a punishment. It's not a penalty," Wilkins said. "This is for everybody's safety." 

In a statement to CBC, Correctional Services Canada said medical isolation measures are happening "in accordance with public health advice."

"Every effort is made to provide inmates on medical isolation with as much time out of cell as possible while respecting strong infection and prevention principles in order to contain the spread of COVID-19." 

Nurses and doctors are on hand to care for offenders, it said. 

Joliette inmate describes 'breaking point'

With its relatively small prison population, the Joliette Institution for Women, 75 kilometres northeast of Montreal, may have the highest rate of infection of any federal penitentiary in the country. It has a capacity of 132 inmates. So far, 51 inmates there have tested positive for COVID-19, and 16 have recovered. 

An inmate at Joliette who CBC has agreed not to identify due to her concern she would be penalized for speaking to the media, said she is spending about 80 per cent of her day in her closet-size room. 

The woman doesn't have COVID-19. She said because of concerns about the spread of the virus, only one inmate at a time is being allowed in the facility's common areas.

So far, 51 inmates at the women's prison in Joliette, Que., have tested positive for COVID-19, and 16 have recovered. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"I'm telling you emotionally, [I'm] at a breaking point right now," she said, " the point where I had an anxiety attack, where I literally had to climb up to my window, just to get some fresh air."

This week, lawyers filed an application for a class-action lawsuit on behalf of one of the inmates there, Joelle Beaulieu. She contends Correctional Service Canada did not move quickly enough to contain COVID-19.

According to the filing, Beaulieu began to experience COVID-19 symptoms on March 21 but was not tested until six days later. 

The lawsuit, which has not yet been approved by Quebec Superior Court, states that when her test came back positive, she began a two-week stretch inside a cell. She had limited access to toilets and just 15 minutes a day to use showers or phones. 

The inmate, who is Ojibway, said she was denied access to an Indigenous elder or a mental health worker despite her requests. She said she suffered panic attacks.

Balancing rights vs. risks 

For Canada's correctional investigator, it's clear that there is a fine line at risk of being crossed. 

"If it's a human rights violation, it can still be justifiable in a free and democratic society that is confronted with a pandemic," said Zinger to CBC.

In his report, Zinger goes further.

A cell door at the Port-Cartier prison. Zinger said he found prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19 or were awaiting test results were being held in isolation almost round the clock. (Correctional Investigator of Canada)

"Fundamental human rights and dignity adopted through a public health emergency must be respected," he said. As things stand, he said, the confinement measures now in place are harsher than what judges had in mind when offenders were sentenced for their crimes.

Given that, he said, the courts may at some point be asked to weigh in on whether that balance of rights versus risks has been respected in this pandemic.

With files from Kim Garritty

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