Watchdog urges prisons to ease COVID-19 restrictions as caseload drops to 1

With only one active case of COVID-19 in federal corrections facilities, Canada's prison watchdog says it's time to ease lockdown measures that are causing frustration and tensions behind bars.

Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger says prolonged measures causing frustration, tension

Federal prisons have imposed restrictive measures during the pandemic. Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger says they're causing frustration and tension behind bars. (The Canadian Press)

With only one active case of COVID-19 in federal corrections facilities, Canada's prison watchdog says it's time to ease lockdown measures that are causing frustration and tensions behind bars.

In a new report, Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger said that as of today, there is only one known active case among federal inmates. There have been 360 confirmed cases — less than three per cent of the total inmate population — in outbreaks contained to five penitentiaries since the pandemic began.

Two inmates have died from the virus.

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) has taken measures to stop transmission, including a suspension of visits and temporary day passes, lockdowns and new restrictions on movement.

Zinger's report said a special CSC advisory committee is working on a framework for a "new normal" in prison operations that would gradually ease restrictions while minimizing health and safety risks.

Recognizing that CSC must remain "vigilant," Zinger said it's time to begin a phased process of restoring services and programs. 

'Pent-up frustration ... rising tension'

"As the situation stands today, restrictions imposed by the pandemic show little sign of abatement. Indefinite lockdowns or extended periods of cellular isolation continue at many facilities, even those that have not experienced an outbreak," he writes in the report.

"Ongoing monitoring by my office indicates pent-up frustration and rising tension in a number of facilities."

Zinger said various programs, services and basic human rights were suspended, violated or withdrawn as temporary emergency measures during the pandemic. In some cases, inmates were confined to their cells and denied fresh air and exercise.

"It needs to be said that some of these restrictions reach beyond measures or controls contemplated in either domestic or international law. Public health emergencies must be managed within a legal framework. Rights need to be respected and restored," the report reads.

Zinger said some inmates have been in prolonged solitary confinement. Spiritual counselling has also been cancelled due to the pandemic, and a pause on programming also has had a negative impact on release planning and community integration, he said.

Zinger called for an epidemiological review to understand why outbreaks occurred in five institutions and not in others. That information could help bolster CSC's pandemic defences in the event of a second wave of the virus.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the advisory committee is working to ensure programs and activities are phased back in.

"It is a testament to the work of our corrections staff and the local public health authorities that there is currently one known case of COVID-19 in federal institutions across Canada," said the statement from Blair's office. "We will continue to work with local public health authorities to best support the needs of the offender population throughout this difficult time." 

Nearly 100 correctional officers infected

Close to 100 correctional officers have also been infected with COVID-19.

Jeff Wilkins, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said along with the threat of the virus has come an increased threat of unrest due to restrictive conditions such as limited access to the outdoors.

"There's always the risk of violence in our institutions, and of course we know that when restrictions are put in place for long periods of time, that can lead to an increased risk," he said.

Wilkins said he agrees that as communities begin to reopen, so too should federal prisons. He said the union is part of a 'Shaping the New Normal' advisory group that is working on a safe reopening strategy.

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said the pandemic has led to people being confined in circumstances that violate their rights under domestic and international law.

"The prolonged confinement which the Canadian courts and international authorities have recognized as harmful and akin to torture that has been in place for months in response to COVID-19 may be doing more damage than the virus itself," she said.

Zinger said that he will conduct site visits when it's safe to do so, beginning with institutions in Ontario and Quebec, to review plans and progress for resuming operations.

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