Quebec COVID restrictions are loosening, but jails are still putting inmates in solitary to quarantine

Life in Quebec is the freest it's been in months. Restaurants and bars are open. So are theatres, gyms and concert halls. The entire province is considered a low-risk "green zone." In provincial jails, though, it's a different story, and some lawyers are speaking out about quarantine practices.

Lawyer says practice of keeping inmates in cells 23 hours per day for 2 weeks is 'inhumane'

In early February, about 100 inmates at the Bordeaux jail in Montreal were infected with COVID-19. (Craig Desson/CBC)

Life in Quebec is the freest it's been in months. Restaurants and bars are open. So are theaters, gyms and concert halls. The curfew is a memory, and the entire province is considered a low-risk "green zone."

In provincial jails, though, it's a different story.

Since early on in the pandemic, provincial jails have been quarantining inmates for two weeks upon arrival.

This type of quarantine bears little resemblance to what Canadians are asked to go through when they enter the country or wait for the results of a COVID-19 test.

For many inmates, it's two weeks of solitary confinement, in a small cell, for 23 hours a day, for 14 days straight.

Now, with pandemic restrictions winding down outside the jails, a Montreal doctor is questioning whether solitary quarantines are an effective way to prevent outbreaks, which the province says is the objective, and some lawyers who defend prisoners are sounding the alarm about the practice.

Marie-Claude Lacroix, a criminal defence lawyer who specializes in the rights of incarcerated people, told CBC News keeping inmates in their cell for such long stretches for 14 days with nothing to do is "extreme" and "inhumane."

Some detainees are still awaiting trial and are presumed innocent.

Quarantine is 'hell'

CBC News spoke to an inmate who went through a 14-day quarantine at a provincial jail. He said he was alone in a cell for two weeks, and that guards let him out only once every 23 hours.

"There were people with mental problems who were screaming at night," the man said. CBC News is not publishing his name or that of the jail because he fears reprisals by guards if he is identified. 

He said he was given no books or anything else to help pass the time, and the portions of food were as small as "a quarter of your fist." All he could do was exercise and drink water, he said. 

It makes their situation worse. They're angry against the system and their mental condition is worse.- Marie-Claude Lacroix, lawyer

The last two days of his quarantine were even harder to bear, he said, as a June heat wave set in and the cell became extremely humid.

"The quarantine was hell," he said.

At older jails such as Montreal's Bordeaux, which opened in 1912, there is no air conditioning and the isolation cells have become incredibly hot this summer.

"One of my clients at Bordeaux was given one outing in 14 days to a yard the size of a chicken coop and he had to go out alone," said Lacroix.

She said another client "spent 14 days in quarantine without even being able to take a shower."

Some inmates are being paired up in a cell during their quarantine.

"Being stuck in a cell for 14 days with a person we don't know can be difficult," said Bianka Savard Lafrenière, a Montreal-based lawyer who is also speaking out against quarantine measures in Quebec jails.

Also, if one inmate tests positive for COVID-19, the cellmate has to start their isolation all over again, she said.

Savard Lafrenière acknowledged many Canadians had to stay at home to quarantine during the pandemic, but this, she said, is on a whole other level. 

"You just stay in the cell and you wait for the correctional officers to come see you and say, 'OK, it's your time to shower' or 'It's your time to have a phone call.'"

In interviews, three lawyers told CBC News that a shortage of staff within the jail system has led to such treatment.

WATCH | A lawyer describes the conditions inside Quebec jails:

Quarantine conditions in Quebec provincial detention centres

2 years ago
Duration 12:51
Criminal lawyer Bianka Savard Lafrenière talks to Catherine Verdon-Diamond about the conditions people endure when they are admitted or transferred to Quebec jails.

Savard Lafrenière said staffing jails during a pandemic can be difficult because guards often will be sent home if it's suspected they have COVID-19. And if a guard is sent home, it's not easy to find a replacement.

Lacroix also said guards have to take each person in quarantine out of their cell individually and there can only be one person in the yard at a time. 

"One hour outside per person, if we count 12 hours of daytime, only allows 12 people to go out, when there are a lot more people than that in one row," she said.

Are jail quarantines effective?

Dr. Christopher Labos, a Montreal cardiologist with a degree in epidemiology, is skeptical of the effectiveness of the quarantine measures. 

"The problem with COVID-19 is that it's very much spread by respiratory droplets," he said. "So if everyone is just breathing the same air, if there's not good air circulation in that prison, it doesn't really matter if you're in your cell or not. Cells are not airtight cubicles."

He said vaccines are the "clear path forward" to control COVID-19 now.

The Quebec government said it's difficult, if not impossible, to know the rate of vaccination in jails since the population is in near constant flux. The stays of many inmates are just short term.

Despite the quarantines, Quebec's jails have seen outbreaks, affecting inmates and staff.

In January, there was an outbreak at the Saint-Jérôme detention centre, where 45 inmates and 17 workers tested positive for COVID-19. In February, an outbreak at Bordeaux infected about 100 inmates and about 17 staff members.

Some older provincial detention centres such as Montreal's Bordeaux jail have no air conditioning, making solitary confinement even more difficult during a heat wave. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

As of June 30, more than 600 detainees across the province have been infected during the pandemic. In Montreal's jails, 268 detainees out of 2,221 have tested positive for COVID-19.

Marie-Josée Montminy, a spokesperson for Quebec's Public Security Ministry, said the use of isolation for jail admissions and transfers is intended to limit the spread of COVID-19.

A 14-day quarantine is mandatory, even for those who are fully vaccinated. However, that policy could change as the pandemic wanes, she said.

Quebec stricter than some provinces

Other provinces also require inmates to isolate when they arrive in provincial jails to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, though Quebec is stricter than some. 

In New Brunswick, when an inmate arrives who is asymptomatic, they are observed for five days and tested. If the test comes back negative, they are moved into the general inmate population. In British Columbia, new inmates are held in a special "induction unit" but are given as much time out of their cells as possible and can interact with people in their bubble, said a spokesperson for the province's Public Safety Ministry.

When considering the treatment of inmates, Lacroix said, it's important to remember that they will be released back into society.

And that comes sooner rather than later, since inmates in provincial jails generally serve sentences that last months or weeks. She said this form of quarantine only makes rehabilitation harder.

"When they get outside, a lot of them have a lot of issues," she said. "It makes their situation worse. They're angry against the system and their mental condition is worse."