Inmates, advocates denounce 'inhuman' 24/7 COVID-19 lockdowns at Quebec's Leclerc jail
Women say isolation means it's hard to get showers, clean clothes, medication
WARNING: This story contains discussions of suicide.
Women incarcerated at the Leclerc detention centre in Laval, Que., say people in isolation for COVID-19 have been in lockdown 24/7, deprived of showers, medication and changes of clothing for days on end, despite assurances from the Public Security Ministry that inmates' needs are being met.
The Leclerc detention centre, a women's provincial jail currently housing 177 people, has been dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak since mid-January.
Since its onset, 121 incarcerated people have caught the virus, according to Laval public health. As of Thursday, there were 23 active cases at the institution.
CBC spoke with two inmates and is withholding their names to protect their identities.
One woman told CBC last week that she hadn't been allowed out of her cell or had a shower in nearly two weeks.
She said those in isolation were initially told they would be allowed out for 20 minutes every two days to shower and make phone calls.
"But it never happened," she said. "Many people have been in 'deadlock' for up to seven days without being able to call or take a shower. We didn't even get out."
She added that she and others in isolation had not been consistently receiving their prescribed medication.
"Sometimes [nursing staff] don't have the time to get their medication for everybody. So they only come with Tylenol… That's all they got," she said.
The woman said that the isolation has been taking a serious mental toll and that "people are crying every day."
Her own mental health issues have worsened, she said, to the point that she is feeling suicidal and has been constantly making a pact with herself to stay alive.
"I do that with myself sometimes every five minutes," she said. "I don't know how long I can stand it."
Another inmate told CBC that she spent 13 days in COVID isolation without being given a change of underwear, even though she was menstruating.
She says she only had time to grab one spare pair before she was taken from her unit to an isolation cell with another inmate. She says she requested more clean clothing but was refused.
"We explained that it didn't make sense … that we couldn't even wash our clothes, but they didn't care at all," she said.
"It's awful, how I was treated…. It's like we're in a cage," she said. "We are humans, not animals."
In addition, she says she was initially given only four or five sanitary pads and had to complain to get more. She and her cellmate were allowed out only once a week to shower, she said.
Showers, clean clothing being provided, officials say
But Quebec Public Security officials paint a completely different picture.
They say staff ensure that everyone in isolation gets a minimum of two showers a week, that all medication is being delivered, and that the well-being of the women is being closely monitored.
"In addition to the two showers, we distribute hygiene products: soap, washcloths … as well as clean clothing because the clientele doesn't have direct access to washers and dryers during this period [of isolation]" said Vince Parente, assistant general director of the correctional network for the Montreal region.
"We know that our incarcerated people in quarantine are in a difficult period," Parente said. "So if there are particular needs … our managers quickly address them."
In a follow up email, a spokesperson for the Public Security Ministry said the detention centre has not received any complaints from inmates who lacked hygiene products or clean clothing.
Parente says that a schedule is posted outside the cells, or near the guard station, indicating when people in isolation will be allowed out for showers and given access to phones to call lawyers and family.
"If ever there are deviations from that schedule, we address it rapidly," he said, adding that guards also have cell phones that inmates can use to make calls.
Parente says correctional staff are doing more rounds in the sector where people are isolating and have distributed items such as radios, books and games to help people pass the time while in isolation.
As well, medical personnel monitor people's symptoms at least twice a day.
The second inmate confirmed that medical personnel did visit twice a day and added that, in her case, she was provided with necessary medication.
"This was about the only thing that was being done correctly," she said.
Contagious Omicron a challenge for jails and prisons
Managing a fast-spreading outbreak in an incarcerated population is a challenge, according to Dr. Stephanie Susser, a public health physician who oversees the team set up to follow the Omicron outbreak at Leclerc.
"We wanted to prevent ICU. We wanted to prevent deaths … in a very vulnerable population," said Susser.
"It really is a balancing act … if we didn't isolate sufficiently, the whole detention centre would have developed COVID," she said. "It was so contagious."
While public health officials are not working directly in the prisons, they co-ordinate with corrections officials and the prison health-care employees at Leclerc, to try to manage the outbreak.
Susser said while isolation guidelines are set out at a provincial level, the team adapted them in some cases to meet the needs of individuals at Leclerc.
For example, officials were aware that some people might be a suicide risk, and so they were placed in isolation with another person.
"Our 'other pandemic' is the mental health consequences of the infectious disease pandemic," she said. "That's something that's followed very closely."
Susser said she is not aware of any situations of incarcerated people not receiving medications or basic items.
She said one of the priorities of public health was to make sure that there was enough personnel on hand to prevent "breaks in service" where staff would be unable to manage the needs of inmates.
But throughout the pandemic, meeting inmates' needs has been a challenge for many correctional institutions in the province, according to a Quebec ombudsman report released in September 2021.
It cited similar complaints from inmates who faced delays in receiving their medication, and lacked access to showers while in isolation.
The ombudsman's office continued to receive complaints from inmates that they went several days in isolation without clean clothing, even after the office intervened to correct the situation.
Advocates call for end of 'atrocious' conditions
Prisoners' rights advocates say they have heard similar accounts about COVID-19 isolation at Leclerc, though they point out that living conditions have long been an issue at the jail.
"Every few days, I have someone calling me [from Leclerc]," said Louise Henry, who was incarcerated herself at Leclerc until January 2020 and, is now a member of CASIF, a Quebec organization advocating for the rights of incarcerated women.
Henry said she felt lucky to have been transferred to federal prison before the pandemic, instead of staying at Leclerc.
"Because the women I'm in contact with — who lived through the pandemic between those walls — it's atrocious," she said.
The Montreal-based human rights league wrote a letter last Friday to regional public health officials and to provincial interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau, calling on them to intervene to ensure human rights are protected.
"A shower or even taking a walk for like an hour a day or even clean clothes: This is basic human rights. And if we're not able to give that to them, the United Nations says, it's basically cruel treatment," said Catherine Descoteaux, co-ordinator of the Ligue des droits et libertés.
Ultimately Descoteaux, Henry and other advocates say the pandemic proves the need to reduce the number of people incarcerated, so as not to subject them to unnecessary health risks, particularly when most women at the provincial institution are serving short sentences, often for non-violent crimes.
Inmates who spoke to CBC are also calling for more public scrutiny of the correctional system.
"I feel like … nobody cares," one said. "I listen to the news and they talk about … CHSLDs and, you know, and nobody ever talks about prisons …. I always knew the prison system was problematic but now I've seen it from the inside and I'm telling you it's not human."
"We're in 2022. It's very urgent that those who run the correctional system wake up," the other said. "It's urgent that there be a public awakening, because this doesn't make sense."
If you are in crisis or know someone who is, here is where to get help:
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) crisisservicescanada.ca
In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre
With files from Kristy Rich and Brennan Neill.