'In here, you're defenceless': Inmates ask for release amid virus fears

Fear of COVID-19 is gripping communities across the country, but prisoners worried about the virus face a unique set of challenges.

Corrections Canada insists it's taking all precautions to keep prisoners, staff safe

A photo of medium-security cells at Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ontario, posted by the Correctional Service of Canada to its Flicker page. The maximum-, medium- and minimum-security facility can house up to 720 inmates. (Correctional Service Canada/Flickr)

Fear of COVID-19 is gripping communities across the country, but prisoners worried about the virus face a unique set of challenges.

Steven Nowack, a convicted fraudster currently doing time in the minimum-security wing of Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont., said he's feeling helpless as coronavirus tightens its grip on the surrounding community.

"In here, you're defenceless. I can't go order PurelI, can't get gloves, I can't get a face mask, I can't ensure my food is properly prepared," Nowack told CBC by phone.

So far, seven inmates at three Corrections Canada facilities have tested positive for COVID-19: four at the Grand Valley Institution for Women near Kitchener, Ont., two at the Port-Cartier Institution and one at Joliette Institution for Women, both in Quebec.

Tight quarters

With more than 160 prisoners confined to tight quarters in his wing, Nowack likens the Collins Bay facility to a cruise ship at dock, with one key exception.

"I am fearful that when the virus does enter the prison walls — and it will, because you have between 20 to 30 separate people entering prison from the outside world, not including delivery services — that ... you're dealing with a population unlike on a cruise ship which is here under duress," Nowack said.

Steven Nowack is a convicted fraudster and an inmate at Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont. (Toronto Police )

According to Nowack, Collins Bay has made no changes to the way the facility is cleaned or disinfected, apart from placing two hand sanitizer stations in the dining hall, one of which quickly broke.

In an email to CBC, Corrections Canada said it's taking all possible precautions to keep staff and inmates safe.

"[The Correctional Service of Canada] has enhanced cleaning protocols, including disinfecting common areas of contact," a spokesperson wrote.

As well, inmates now receive meals in their cells instead of the dining hall, but Nowack claims staff don't wear mask or gloves when preparing or serving food.

Corrections Canada insists all safeguards recommend by the Public Health Agency of Canada are being followed.

Petitioned PM, minister

At Collins Bay, the chapel has been closed, outdoor time has been limited and gym time has been cut to just a few hours a day.

Nowack said that's causing inmates to crowd the gym during the brief time it's open.

Nowack has sent a petition with two dozen signatures to the prime minister and public safety minister asking for the conditional release of some prisoners at the facility for their own safety, and that of staff.

Some politicians have also called for the conditional release of some prisoners, and there have been instances of jail guards refusing to report work over fears of coronavirus. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair did address similar concerns during a recent news conference

Nowack has received replies acknowledging the receipt of his petition, but no word on when or whether he and his fellow inmates might be released.

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