New Brunswick

'Someone has to know': Prisoner sends plea for help from Dorchester

In a letter, Aaron Daigle says prisoners are not given hand sanitizer, they haven't been able to see any visitors in weeks, and guards don't have masks or gloves. He says he feels like he's facing a death sentence.

Prisoner fears for his safety as COVID-19 hits penitentiaries across the country

Audrey Daigle and her son Aaron, who dictated a letter to her over the phone from Dorchester Penitentiary about feeling unsafe and not protected as COVID-19 infects prisoners in other provinces. (Submitted by Audrey Daigle)

Over the course of several collect calls from prison, Aaron Daigle dictated a plea for help to his mother.

He spent all of the previous night writing a letter and asked his mother to share it with whomever she could. 

He's afraid for his safety, and as COVID-19 infects more and more prisoners in the country, he feels this is the only way to be heard.

His mother Audrey Daigle read the letter to CBC News.

"We don't have a choice to stay safe, or to self–isolate, or to use hand sanitizer or to self–distance," she read from her Sussex home. 

"Words can't describe the effects on a person mentally and physically under these unprecedented circumstances." 

"The consequences of not taking action fast and waiting until it's too late will be devastating and irreversible."

Correctional Service Canada says it has been in talks with the Parole Board of Canada about the possibility of releasing prisoners. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News )

Aaron Daigle, 32, was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to non-violent drug charges in 2019. He was moved from jail to prison and has been spending his sentence at the Dorchester Penitentiary.

He was granted parole in early March but hasn't been released, Audrey Daigle said.

In his letter, he says prisoners are not given hand sanitizer, guards don't have masks or gloves, and it's difficult to keep enough distance from others. He says he feels like he's facing a death sentence.

"We're not looking for a get-out-of-jail-free card, we're asking for a fighting chance to make it home to our family and to our loved ones," Aaron Daigle said in the letter.

"We were ordered to serve a sentence by a judge, but at this point Correctional Service Canada has sentenced us and our family to a much more severe sentence."

They're all clustered together with no cleaners, no hand sanitizers, no nothing, like it's not right. Someone has to know. People have to know what's going on.- Audrey Daigle, mother

Correctional officers in the Maritimes have said Correctional Service Canada is slow to make changes to protect inmates and staff from COVID–19.

Advocates have been calling for the release of non-violent inmates, citing the risk of COVID-19 spreading exponentially in the close quarters of prison cells.

Audrey Daigle choked up when talking about her fear for her son.

"They need to realize that these lives are precious. They have family," she said.  "He made a bad mistake. Yes ... But now, I mean their lives are valuable"

She said his four children are worried about their father.

"I don't uphold crime, I never did. It's not that, It's just that I just want a little the mercy here, and this pandemic, we don't know where it's going to take us."

In a prison to actually achieve the physical distancing means you have to have space, the only way to make space is to actually to get some of those people out of there.​​​- Kim Pate, senator.

She said this letter "isn't just for himself," but for his prison mates who are feeling the same fear.

In an interview with Information Morning Moncton, Sen. Kim Pate said it would be a good idea to release all inmates who don't have much time left on their sentences, and inmates who have health issues that put them at higher risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.

"Most of the these prisons are in small communities," she said. "And if in fact there's an outbreak in the prisons then that could overload the local health-care system."

She said the risk comes not from the population itself, but from "staff coming in, moving through the entire institution and discovering that they tested positive but were asymptomatic at the time," she said.

Senator Kim Pate worries if COVID-19 reaches prisons, it will spread faster than in the general population. (Senate of Canada)

And physical distancing is nearly impossible in some cases, especially in a crowded facility.

"In a prison, to actually achieve the physical distancing means you have to have space, the only way to make space is to … get some of those people out of there," she said. 

According to the Correctional Service Canada website, there have been 32 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in prisons in Quebec, eight in Ontario and 36 in British Columbia. This doesn't include dozens of cases confirmed among corrections officers and infections in provincial jails.

In an emailed statement, Correctional Service Canada spokesperson Stephanie McGlashan said visiting, temporary absences, work release and transfers have been suspended to prevent the spread of the disease.

"Other options are available to inmates to connect with their family and support networks such as video visitation or telephone," she said.

 She said when an inmate tests positive, they are isolated, as is anyone who has been in contact with them. Prisons have also ramped up cleaning and educating inmates on how to monitor for symptoms.

She said Correctional Service Canada is "working closely with the Parole Board of Canada to examine all options with respect to the safe release of offenders into the community," but did not say if any inmates have been released.

Closer to his children

Audrey Daigle said the youngest of her son's children is a four-year-old who's been diagnosed with epilepsy. She said he was supposed to be released on parole mid-March but that hasn't happened yet.

"Her dad called when she was here … she held the phones to her heart and said 'I just miss you so much, Daddy,' and he didn't hear, I don't think. She was pushing the little phone into her chest."

"Those people are valuable too, they have lives. … They're all clustered together with no cleaners no hand sanitizers, no nothing, like it's not right. Someone has to know. People have to know what's going on."

About the Author

Hadeel Ibrahim is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at hadeel.ibrahim@cbc.ca

With files from Information Morning Moncton

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