Canada's prison system suspends visits to prevent COVID-19 behind bars

Canada's prison system has suspended all visits to inmates from the public in a move to prevent a potential COVID-19 outbreak.

Correctional Service Canada distributes protective gear and works with public health

Corrections Services Canada says the Mission Insitutions is on lockdown as more inmates are tested positive for Covid-19. Photo is of Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont.
Correctional Service Canada is preparing has suspended visits from the public to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in federal prisons. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

Canada's prison system has suspended all visits to inmates from the public in a move to prevent a potential COVID-19 outbreak.

Correctional Service Canada issued a statement Saturday saying there are no coronavirus cases currently within the federal prison system.

It said inmates could stay in touch with family and friends by telephone or video conference. 

"CSC has dedicated health care services in its institutions that have the knowledge and experience to handle cases of infectious diseases and respiratory illnesses, such as COVID‑19," the statement said.

CSC spokesperson Martine Rondeau said protocols are in place to prevent infection, including heightened hygiene regimes, increased signage and health care services prepared to handle cases of influenza and other respiratory illnesses such as COVID‑19.

Prior to the ban on visitors, prisons were asking the public to stay away if they had signs of illness or thought they may have had contact with someone who had coronavirus.

"We have contingency plans for extreme circumstances. CSC would comply with requirements set by public health authorities," Rondeau said.

CSC said it is working in collaboration with local health authorities.

Correctional Investigator of Canada Ivan Zinger visited Drumheller Institution in Alberta this week and said he was encouraged by the level of preparation for a potential COVID-19 outbreak. CSC is distributing huge quantities of supplies to each institution, including gloves, gowns, masks, sanitizer and wipes, he said.

"Everyone crosses their fingers and hopes this won't happen, but I'm confident that the service, on this one, is certainly up to the task of containing it," he said.

Higher-risk environments

Zinger said his main concern is the possibility of staff not making it in to work, out of fear or for other reasons.

Like nursing homes and long-term care facilities, he said, prisons are higher-risk environments.

They are typically crowded, stressful, contained environments, with populations that have disproportionate levels of chronic diseases, often because of a large number of offenders with past drug or alcohol addictions and histories of poor nutrition.

Zinger said offenders with mental health issues or chronic diseases and the elderly are particularly vulnerable in a lockdown.

A staff member checks supplies set aside to cope with a possible COVID-19 outbreak in the Drumheller Institution in Alberta. (CBC News)

CSC manages more than 23,000 inmates; about 14,000 are incarcerated and another 9,000 are under community supervision.

Other countries have taken steps to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus behind COVID-19 in prisons.

Iran opted to temporarily release more than 54,000 prisoners.

In Italy, deadly riots erupted after officials imposed strict measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including a suspension of visitors.

Alternatives to prison visits

In Canada, officials say alternatives to prison visits are available, such as telephone calls or video visits.

Justin Piche, a prisoner rights expert at the University of Ottawa, suggested Canada could adopt an approach similar to Iran's by safely releasing a significant number of people in federal prisons, provincial and territorial jails and immigration detention centres who don't pose a threat to public safety.

But Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said an infection could spread faster on the inside.

"Contagious diseases are definitely harder to contain in prisons, given the close confinement and often crowded conditions, the poor ventilation and nutrition, and substandard health care," she said.

Sen. Kim Pate, a long-time advocate for prisoners' rights, said health services are inadequate in prisons and health emergencies like COVID-19 can make the situation worse.

"We now know that there were significant physical and mental health consequences associated with the isolation of Canadian patients who were quarantined in the community as a result of the SARS crisis of nearly two decades ago," she said.

"Knowing that these harms occurred for patients in a health care setting, it doesn't take much to imagine the situation for those in prison. Prisoners are already too often going without adequate health care in an environment where needs tend to be viewed as risks, and treated as such."