'It's inhumane': Many federal inmates haven't seen their loved ones in over 2 years

Most in-person visits to inmates have been on hold since the beginning of the pandemic, more than two years ago. Inmates and their families say they are suffering, while Correctional Service Canada says it is prioritizing health and safety.

Correctional service says priority is health and safety of inmates

As of March 23, there were two active cases of COVID-19 at the Donnacona Institution. No in-person visits are allowed. (Jean-François Nadeau/Radio-Canada)

While most health restrictions have been lifted across the country, many inmates in federal correctional facilities have not been able to see their loved ones in person since the onset of the pandemic in Canada, in March 2020.

"It's inhumane, everyone has the right to see their family," said Daniel Amecia, who is incarcerated at the maximum-security Donnacona federal institution near Quebec City. In a phone interview, Amecia said he has not been able to see his girlfriend, sisters, nephews or nieces in person since the start of the pandemic.

Another inmate whom the CBC has agreed to call Bernard because he fears reprisals if he speaks out, says the situation is similar at the medium-security Drummond Institution in Drummondville, Que. He has not been permitted to see his girlfriend for more than two years now.

"We don't ask for much, we just want to see the people we love," he said in a phone interview.

For Correctional Service Canada (CSC) "The health and safety of staff and inmates remains a top priority," a spokesperson said by email.

"CSC has begun to gradually resume inmate visits. However, at present, there are active cases of COVID-19 among inmates in federal correctional facilities across the country. Consequently, visits to certain institutions are suspended."

A Correctional Service Canada guard walks down the hallway of a federal correctional facility. (Correctional Service Canada)

As of March 23, there were a total of 319 active cases of COVID-19 across all correctional facilities in the country, including six in Quebec. Two of these active cases were detected at the Donnacona Institution.

"As the waves subsided, there were reopenings at some visitation sites and there were further closures based on the evolving risks," said CSC's chief security officer, Geneviève Thibeault, during a subsequent phone interview. CSC was not able to specify the exact dates of these reopenings in time for publication.

'It seems totally counterproductive'

As of March 25, the CSC website indicated that non-contact visits, which are "conducted behind a glass or some other form of physical barrier between the visitor and the inmate," are permitted in only 27 of the 61 federal correctional institutions.

Non-contact visits resumed on March 23 at the Drummond Institution. They are still prohibited at Donnacona.

To date, no federal institution allows contact visits — "conducted in an open area where no barrier separates the inmate and the visitor(s)"  — or private family visits (PFV), which "occur in separate structures inside the perimeter of the institution where the inmate may meet authorized visitors in private." Those private visits normally last up to 72 hours, once every two months.

"Everyone got vaccinated precisely for the PFVs, for the visits," said Bernard. As of March 20, 88 per cent of inmates at the Drummond Institution had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to CSC data. At Donnacona, the proportion of vaccinated is 81.5 per cent.

Bernard and Almecia do not understand why they still face such severe restrictions when the vast majority of prisoners have been vaccinated and life outside is getting back to normal.

University of Ottawa professor Sandra Lehalle says reducing prisoners' access to the outside world and their families is not a good strategy for rehabilitation. (University of Ottawa)

Sandra Lehalle,  a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, sees it as an illustration of how the correctional service prioritizes security at the expense of its "social reintegration mandate," she said in a phone interview.

Prisoners "are going through probably the most stressful period of their lives, and their main emotional support is being cut off," Lehalle said.

"It is as if we have multiplied the obstacles and cut off the points of support for these people," she said. "It seems totally counterproductive with the official goal of a prison sentence."

"As it is now, you're kind of screwing up our lives," Almecia said of the suspension of visits. "The phone is all well and good but, at some point, you can't maintain a life with your family outside over the phone, you know what I mean?"

Videoconferences deemed insufficient

Almecia has been able to see his relatives by videoconference, but these are limited to one or two 20-minute sessions per week — "if you're lucky," he said — when he was previously entitled to three regular visits of one hour per week.

Bernard and his girlfriend Nancy, who also wishes to remain anonymous, said they have not even been able to meet by videoconference for a few months now at Drummond.

"There is no policy that restricts the length of each videoconference," Thibeault said. "The video is determined by each institution based on the number of devices they have available, and the number of requests."

"CSC has installed additional videoconferencing visitation kiosks across the country" and "increased bandwidth to support videoconference visits," a spokesperson said in an email.

"At several institutions, it has also increased the number of hours during which visits by videoconference are permitted. All establishments are equipped to offer visits by videoconference."

Amecia's girlfriend, who prefers to be identified only by her first name, Laura, confirmed in a phone interview the duration and frequency of the videoconferences.

"Then we are being watched for the whole 20 minutes, so there is no privacy either," she added. "It's me, my boyfriend, and then someone else whose camera is turned off."

Thibeault denied this information.

"That's not the case," she said. "Whether by telephone, whether by videoconference, whether in the visiting room, the conversations are not systematically listened to."

Neither the Drummond Institution nor the Donnacona Institution were able to respond to CBC News requests for clarification regarding the videoconferences in time for publication.

The Drummond Penitentiary in Drummondville, Que., is one of many federal prisons which have severely restricted visits because of the pandemic. (Jean-François Dumas/Radio-Canada)

Difficult times for the families

"At the moment, we don't have access to [videoconferences]. It's been like two and a half years since we've seen each other, it's difficult as much for the person who is inside as for the person who is outside," said Nancy.

"It's starting to get a little inhumane," she added. "I can understand why he's there and everything, but I can't understand why they keep us from seeing each other like this."

"It's extremely difficult," Laura said. "There's a lot of tension between us [...] a relationship over the phone, it doesn't make any sense."

"The relatives are often forgotten or sometimes used as reintegration tools, but not really thought of as people who are also living in very difficult situations," said Lehalle, who has interviewed many relatives of inmates as part of her research.

"We have thousands of people incarcerated in Canada, that means we have thousands of people who have a loved one behind bars," Lehalled said. "With the pandemic, all of those families have been even more concerned for those who are incarcerated."

In addition to the wait, the uncertainty and conflicting information they receive add to the distress.

"They always give us hope only to end up being disappointed," said Nancy. "At some point, it becomes demoralizing."