Bill Blair asks prison, parole heads to consider releasing some inmates to stop spread of COVID-19

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has asked the heads of Canada's prison system and parole board to consider early release for some federal inmates to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 behind bars.

Public safety minister says response will evolve in response to 'unique risks' in prisons

Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair speaks at a press conference on COVID-19 on Parliament Hill March 18, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has asked the heads of Canada's prison system and parole board to consider early release for some federal inmates to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 behind bars.

Blair's spokesperson Mary-Liz Power said the government understands the "unique risks" inherent to prisons. 

"This pandemic continues to evolve and we have been clear that our response will as well," she said in an email.

"Minister Blair has asked both the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada and the Chair of the Parole Board of Canada to determine whether there are measures that could be taken to facilitate early release for certain offenders."

Prisoners' advocates are ramping up calls to release lower-risk offenders after the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) confirmed COVID-19 cases in two penitentiaries — and are warning that maintaining crowded conditions behind bars during a global pandemic could have disastrous consequences.

On Monday, CSC confirmed its first cases of COVID-19 at two federal prisons in Quebec, with both inmates and staff testing positive.

As of Wednesday morning, CSC said three inmates had tested positive: two at Port-Cartier Institution in Quebec and one at Ontario's Grand Valley Institution for women. As well, 18 employees have tested positive: 11 at Port-Cartier, six at Joliette Institution in Quebec and one at Beaver Creek institution in Ontario.

Prisons will become incubators of the virus.- Sen. Kim Pate

Justin Piché, a criminologist who runs the Criminalization and Punishment Project at the University of Ottawa, argued CSC must engage in a depopulation strategy to save lives.

He said letting people out of halfway houses could free up room for federal prisoners nearing parole eligibility, while many prisoners could be safely released with food and housing supports.

"If measures are not taken to safely depopulate federal penitentiaries, in the best case scenario tensions and authoritarian measures such as lockdowns will increase behind the walls, which undermines community safety in the long term," Piché said.

"In the worst-case scenario, CSC will need to order more body bags and find cold storage to stack up the bodies of those whose lives will be lost that could have been saved."

For those who can't be let out, Piché urged CSC to do in practice what it has promised to do on paper: provide information to prisoners, step up cleaning and disinfection and expand access to personal hygiene products.

Piché said CSC also should provide inmates with free telephone calls and legal and community supports, and access to prison canteens to supplement their diets.

The union representing Canada's correctional officers rejected the calls to release offenders, saying they suggest a "complete disregard for public safety."

Union warns of risks with release

"The focus must be on changing routines in our institutions to respect social distancing and self-isolation practices to every extent possible. Canada is in crisis, and its citizens are already dealing with a potentially deadly threat. It is irresponsible to introduce further threats into our communities," reads a statement from the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO).

The union urged the government to adopt more stringent testing for all staff. 

"In order to keep the front lines strong in our institutions, there may be a requirement to test employees who may not be showing symptoms but may have had contact with a confirmed positive individual, as quarantining such asymptomatic employees for a 14-day period may not be operationally feasible," the union said.

The union also called on CSC to ramp up education efforts and provide more guidance on public health officials' recommendations on physical distancing, minimizing group gatherings, proper hygiene and self-isolation techniques.

Higher-risk environments

CSC manages more than 23,000 inmates. About 14,000 of them are incarcerated and another 9,000 are under community supervision.

Prisons, like nursing homes and long-term care facilities, are considered higher-risk environments.

They are typically crowded, stressful environments with disproportionately high levels of chronic diseases — often because of a large number of offenders with past drug or alcohol addictions and histories of poor nutrition.

In a briefing in Ottawa Tuesday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said infections in correctional facilities, nursing homes and Indigenous communities are "very concerning" because of their potential to spread fast, with "grave consequences" for those vulnerable populations.

A man looks out a dirty window. Barbed wire is outside the window.
Prisoner advocates want early release for some offenders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said she is "furious" that the federal government has failed to start depopulating prisons safely and quickly.

"If the PM is relying on CSC to make this happen, it's folly," she said.

Latimer is recommending a release strategy prioritizing:

  • Offenders who already have been identified as low risk and already have been approved for full parole, day parole or unescorted temporary absences.
  • Offenders who have residences or families where they could be placed under house arrest and subjected to electronic monitoring, or other conditions deemed necessary to protect public safety.
  • Offenders who are particularly vulnerable, such as those who are elderly, immuno-compromised or have chronic illnesses.

CSC said it is working to prevent infections through suspending visits, temporary absences into the community and transfers of inmates.

"As we continue our critical work to uphold public safety during this time, we will monitor the situation closely and continue to work with public health authorities, our employees and unions to ensure that appropriate measures are in place for the ongoing protection and safety of our employees and inmates," CSC said in a statement.

Potential for 'rapid spread' behind bars

But Sen. Kim Pate, an advocate for prison reform who has been pushing for the release of some offenders during the pandemic, said banning visits and locking down prisons with infections will not work because asymptomatic staff coming and going to work can still carry the virus, and the spread can occur "extremely rapidly" in closed environments without adequate health care.

"Medical professionals, NGOs, correctional staff and prisoners are acutely aware of the dangers of COVID-19 in prisons. Not just for them, but for the broader community," she said. "Prisons will become incubators of the virus.

"In my humble opinion, it is long past time for CSC management to stop denying the very real risks, deflecting responsibility and delaying action."

Emilie Coyle, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, wrote a letter to Blair and other ministers urging a depopulation strategy and warning of the potential for "rapid spread" in women's prisons. She said it's impossible to practise physical distancing in an institutional setting and said women prisoners already receive substandard health care.

"A system that was already failing to meet the needs of people in their care cannot reasonably claim that they can manage a public health crisis," she wrote.

NDP public safety critic Jack Harris also wrote to Blair today. He said he is pleased to hear the minister is now looking into this, but said action is needed right away.

"These decisions must be carefully considered, but every day the government delays in taking action increases the risk — not only to inmates but to the people who work in the facilities and their communities as well," he said.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now