Thunder Bay

'It's like they gave up': Experts, union demand action amidst COVID outbreaks at Thunder Bay jail

In March 2020, before the full implications of the COVID-19 pandemic could have even been imagined, Ontario's Solicitor General acted quickly to reduce the number of inmates held in the province's correctional facilities.

Corrections expert says decarceration important to limit COVID spread; calls on government to do more

The Thunder Bay District Jail is battling an outbreak of COVID-19 since the beginning of January, after one inmate tested positive for the disease. Twenty inmates and four staff had been infected, as of Jan. 19. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

In March 2020, before the full implications of the COVID-19 pandemic could have even been imagined, Ontario's Solicitor General acted quickly to reduce the number of inmates held in the province's correctional facilities.

They granted temporary absences from custody to some people, expanded the number of people released on bail and let others out early if they were near the end of their sentence.

At the time, the Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said the move would help "protect our frontline workers and our healthcare system from the burden an outbreak in our correctional system could cause."

But since then, Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, says it's like the province "gave up" in trying to protect the health of inmates and of the broader population.

Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Winnipeg and principal investigator in the Prison Pandemic Partnership, says the Ontario government seems to have given up on preventing spread of COVID-19 within its prisons. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"I think that if they were taking it seriously, we wouldn't have the numbers in prisons and jails that we have right now. We would have decarceration. We would have community sentences. We would have different kinds of options for housing," said Walby. "But I don't see it. It's not there."

Recent numbers show increased COVID transmission alongside growing population in jails

According to numbers released on January 8 by the Prison Pandemic Partnership, a research and advocacy project that includes Walby, 203 inmates and prison staff in Ontario contracted COVID-19 in a period of 265 days, between March 11 and November 30.

During a ramping up of cases in late 2020, in 39 days since the beginning of December, 127 prisoners and staff in Ontario had already contracted the respiratory disease.

Walby said the increase in cases shows the risk for inmates contracting COVID has increased significantly during this second wave. Yet, he doesn't see the provincial government doing anything to reduce the number of people locked up.

Statistics obtained by CBC News show that the measures put in place by the Solicitor General's office in March did result in lower inmate populations in Thunder Bay, at least for a few months.

The district jail has an operating capacity of 124 inmates, according to the province. Between Apr. 3 and Aug. 28, the jail operated above capacity for three of the 24 weeks.

But data from the following weeks showed a much different story.

Between Sept. 4 and Jan. 15, the district jail operated at or above capacity for 13 of the 20 weeks.

Thunder Bay jail union leader hoping to see inmates transferred out

Bill Hayes, president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 737, which represents staff at the Thunder Bay District Jail, said 20 inmates and four staff at the facility have now tested positive for COVID-19.

The jail is over-capacity, as well, with more than 130 inmates housed there, and more keep arriving, as the facility is the only remand centre in the region.

Now the pressure's on to get the count down, and basically, who wants to take a bunch of inmates that have, potentially, COVID?- Bill Hayes, president of OPSEU Local 737


However, Hayes said Tuesday that the province had still not approved transferring anyone out.

"Staff are beginning to get nervous, and obviously getting tired, they're working hard," he said. "People just want to see a resolution, but it doesn't seem to be coming anytime quickly."

Hayes said the inmate count at the jail needs to be reduced to about 100 if the COVID-19 outbreak there is to be halted.

"We've been begging to get our count down since last April," he said. "Now the pressure's on to get the count down, and basically, who wants to take a bunch of inmates that have, potentially, COVID?"

Hayes said there are some correctional facilities in the province that are not at, or exceeding, 100 per cent capacity, and have room to take inmates transferred from Thunder Bay.

"Who's going to open their doors to us?" he said. "I'd hope that everybody would, because we're all in this together, and we all have to be a team in this and help each other out when other places are struggling."

Hayes said the facility is awaiting results on more COVID-19 tests, and it's likely the number of cases inside the facility will climb.

"We're waiting on the contact tracing, as well," he said. "We need to know who's positive, or who could possibly [be] positive, before they're wandering around the institution, spreading it to everybody."

Experts ask why Ontario isn't doing more

When it comes to measures proven to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, Abby Deshman of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said public health officials have been clear: physical distancing is critical.

"In order for prisons to implement physical distancing, they need to let people out into community supervision…and it certainly is within the power of the correctional system to do so."

Abby Deshman, a lawyer with the Canadian Civil Liberties Union, says imprisonment during the pandemic is particularly inhumane, because inmates that test positive for COVID-19 are "shut up in a room for days and weeks on end." (Submitted by Abby Deshman)

Through her work, Deshman has been trying to access government data on how many inmates were being released early, and what the breakdown is of those people.

The data she did receive "showed that most of the decrease in the provincial population came through the operation of the bail system, not through corrections, and that actually very few people were granted early release."

The Ministry of the Solicitor General said they have released 43 "low-risk inmates close to the end of their sentences" since April 2020. 

Deshman added, "the vast majority of people who are behind bars don't need to be there for public safety purposes…so we're calling for a laser focus on ensuring that everyone who can possibly be supervised in the community is."

University of Winnipeg professor Kevin Walby agrees. He's calling on the province to put up more funding and build more capacity within the community to support the safe release of people from inmates.

He said the funding could improve probation and parole programming; organizations like the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry societies could expand their ability to support newly released inmates; and more options for housing would be created.

"I think corrections ministries should be addressing [this] right now. It's not too late to move towards decarceration."