Civil rights groups call for action after Bordeaux jail inmate dies from COVID-19

A male inmate of of Montreal's Bordeaux jail has died from COVID-19, making him the first provincial detainee in Quebec to die from the disease,  the province's public security minister, Geneviève Guilbault, announced Wednesday.

Death occurred in Montreal's crowded, 110-year-old detention centre, where about 60 inmates are infected

Bordeaux jail in Montreal has dozens of COVID-19 infections despite efforts to keep inmates separated. (Daniel Thomas/Radio-Canada)

Civil rights advocates are calling on the Quebec government to do more to protect at-risk detainees in the province's jails, after Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault confirmed Wednesday that a man being held in Montreal's Bordeaux jail has died of complications of the novel coronavirus.

Alexandra Pierre, the vice-chair of Quebec's Ligue des droits et libertés, said the man who died was 72 years old — an age considered to be at risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

Since the early days of the pandemic, Pierre's organization has been pushing for the release of at-risk inmates, including elderly people, pregnant women or anyone with underlying health conditions.

"This death could have been prevented," she said.

Many people in provincial jails end up there because they cannot afford bail, she said, but few pose a threat to the public. And as authorities work to contain the spread of the coronavirus, inmates are living with restrictions that are inhumane, said Pierre.

Some aren't allowed to shower, she said. They are isolated from one another, which is putting their mental health at risk — and yet detainees are catching COVID-19 just the same.

"Prisoners can't physically distance themselves from one another," Pierre said, because the jails are too crowded and in poor repair.

The Montreal detention centre, located in the Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough, built more than a century ago, has a maximum capacity of nearly 1,200 inmates. It's the largest provincial jail in Quebec.

About 60 inmates infected at Bordeaux

Two sectors of Bordeaux jail are dealing with COVID-19 cases, Guilbault said Wednesday, and everyone in those sectors has been tested. 

The number of those who have tested positive is on the decrease she said, although as of Wednesday, some 60 inmates are infected.

Quebec Minister of Public Security Geneviève Guilbault said efforts are in place to keep inmates safe throughout Quebec, and more than 500 have been screened for COVID-19. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Protective measures have been put in place to limit contagion, she said, and they are proving effective, since only two per cent of inmates have fallen ill.

Visits have been suspended, and authorities have tried to maximize physical distancing. People serving intermittent sentences — that is, serving a longer sentence in chunks of time, often on weekends — are being allowed to do their time them at home.

When inmates are moved in or out of a detention centre, all the necessary protective equipment is available, she said.

That account is challenged by a prisoners' rights group called the Anti-Carceral Group.

"Reports from inside suggest that prison guards have failed to wear masks and gloves consistently, while prisoners have never been provided adequate personal protective equipment," the group said in a statement. More importantly, prison staff have failed to provide testing or health care when prisoners have exhibited symptoms, it said.

Family member, advocate calls for action

Jean-Louis Nguyen, whose partner is being detained at Bordeaux, has been worried about the situation since the first case of COVID-19 was discovered there on April 24.

"This death was preventable and, in my eyes, scandalous," Nguyen said, as part of the statement released by the Anti-Carceral Group.

"As a loved one, I urge the authorities to intervene, once and for all, to prevent such a tragedy from happening again within these walls. Quebec can no longer afford to continue to neglect incarcerated people."

In contrast, Ontario has taken swift action by releasing thousands of prisoners, said Ted Rutland, a member of the Anti-Carceral Group.

"Four other provinces have released 25 to 45 per cent of their prison populations," Rutland said.

"Quebec refuses to take such steps, even as Quebec's prisoners are the hardest-hit in the country, and 75 per cent of provincial prisoners are awaiting trial and could be released on bail."

With files from Radio-Canada and CBC's Valeria Cori-Manocchio

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