Ottawa

COVID-19 spread in prisons and jails could be 2021 all over again, says advocate

An Ottawa advocate says Canada needs to do more to protect incarcerated people from the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, but says officials have yet to show they've learned from previous pandemic waves.

'We need to contain COVID, not people,’ says Ottawa criminologist

A exterior view of Joyceville Institution in Kingston, Ont., Dec. 17, 2020. According to Corrections Canada, there was an outbreak at the prison as of at least Dec. 31, 2021. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

An Ottawa advocate says Canada needs to do more to protect incarcerated people from the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, but says officials have yet to show they've learned from previous pandemic waves. 

More than 11,250 COVID cases have been linked to Canadian prisons, jails and carceral institutions, with Quebec leading the pack and Ontario in second, according to statistics compiled by the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project.

"There's vaccine hesitancy behind bars, there's vaccine hesitancy among staff," said Justin Piché, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa and a co-investigator of the project, in an interview with CBC Radio's All In A Day on Tuesday. 

"If we leave all the people that are in there, we're exposing them — not only to a heightened risk of COVID-19 that's higher than the general population — we're also exposing them to a heightened risk of being exposed to solitary confinement."

The criminologist said an outbreak can lead to prisoners spending more than 23 and a half hours inside their cell, a practice Piché says would otherwise be considered torture.

During the first wave, the courts and governments took concrete action to reduce the prison population in this country, Piché said.

As a result, fewer cases cropped up, with 600 prisoners and 229 staff members contracting the virus during the first wave.

But he says the prisons have filled back up, resulting in 1,840 new COVID-19 cases in January 2021.

"We need to contain COVID, not people. We need to divert and decarcerate people from custody to the extent that's possible."

Reported figures incomplete: criminologist

There are over 11,250 COVID cases being linked to Canadian prisons. We speak to an expert about what these numbers mean.

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) alone has reported 1,768 total cases, including 108 active cases and 12 active outbreaks as of Dec. 31, 2021. 

And the numbers reported likely aren't accurate, Piché said. 

"Many jurisdictions haven't even put up their numbers yet, like, I haven't been able to track down numbers from Saskatchewan, Alberta, and B.C. in months."

Some prison authorities have made moves to mitigate the spread, Piché said, like instituting temporary absences for people serving sentences on the weekend to ensure they don't bring the virus into the institution.

But the Ottawa professor would like to see a greater commitment to reduce the incarcerated population, such as finding alternative sentence arrangements.

"I'm hoping we're at the end of it. But based on what we're seeing in terms of community transmission on the outside, January 2022 is going to look like, or worse than January 2021."

With files from CBC Radio's All In A Day

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