The Current

Releasing some prison inmates is key to reducing COVID-19 spread, say advocates

Depopulating prisons is a necessary step to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in correctional facilities and moving into outside communities, advocates and a doctor tell The Current.

‘The health of everybody ... is only as safe as the health of the weakest institution,’ says El Jones

Exterior of Ottawa-Carleton Detention Center. Bill Blair, the minister of public safety and a former Toronto police chief, asked the heads of Canada’s prison system and parole board to consider releasing some federal inmates early to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 behind bars. (Francis Ferland/CBC)
Listen19:46

Preventing outbreaks in prison is important to public health overall, advocates and a doctor say.

They say that in correctional facilities where physical distancing and hand washing are difficult, if not impossible, the best way to prevent outbreaks is to get inmates out from behind bars. 

"What we have to understand is the health of everybody in these communities is only as safe as the health of the weakest institution," said El Jones, a journalist and prison reform advocate.

"Correctional staff go in and out of those facilities. They can carry the infection in and they can carry it out and back to their families — and there's no way of stopping that."

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said this week it's crucial that officials "double down in prevention" to avoid the spread of COVID-19 into correctional facilities.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Chief Public Health Officer Dr Theresa Tam spoke to reporters on Parliament Hill on Thursday. 2:01

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in over 11,000 confirmed cases in Canada, including cases among inmates and staff at federal prisons in Ontario and Quebec, according to Correctional Services Canada. In recent weeks, governments and health officials have put forth strict physical distancing rules and guidelines that are intended to keep people from coming together and spreading the virus. 

"The only social distance that exists in the prison is the social distance between the public and prisoners," said Jarrod Shook, who was released from prison into a halfway house last month.

He said the size of jail cells can make it difficult to walk past each other without brushing shoulders. In such close quarters, best practices to avoid catching COVID-19 are not possible, Shook told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Public safety minister calls for depopulation

According to Jones, the solution avoiding COVID-19 outbreaks in correctional facilities is to get as many people as possible out of federal and provincial/territorial jails.

On Tuesday, Bill Blair, minister of public safety and a former Toronto police chief, asked the heads of Canada's prison system and parole board to consider releasing some federal inmates early to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 behind bars. The Current requested comment from Correctional Services Canada but has yet to receive a response.

B.C.'s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General announced on Wednesday that it's considering the early release of some non-violent offenders in provincial jails.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, speaking on Thursday, added that Blair is "looking at whether further action is necessary." 

According to Statistics Canada figures from 2017/2018, the most recent years available, about 50 per cent more adults were awaiting trial or sentencing in provincial and territorial jails than there were those who had been convicted and sentenced.

Shook said that a former police chief calling for people in prisons to be released should hold weight and supercede the question of whether it's fair to release people before their sentences are up.

"It's pretty clear that if emergency measures need to be taken, they can be taken and they ought to be taken for health reasons," he said.

Jarrod Shook, dialogue editor for the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, was released from prison on March 19, 2020. He says physical distancing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are not possible in jail. (Darkhorse Photography)

Flattening the curve 'includes prisons'

Dr. Claire Bodkin, a resident physician at McMaster University, told The Current that in general, people who are incarcerated have worse health outcomes than the general public. Mental health problems are also prevalent in correctional facilities, she said. 

"I really think when we talk about flattening the curve so we don't overwhelm whole systems, that includes prisons," she said.

Bodkin said prisons have pandemic plans, but often lack basic necessities like hand soap. Hand sanitizer is prohibited in jails because it contains alcohol, she adds.

"I'm deeply concerned that based on the limitations of prisons and the inability to practice social distancing — and the higher rates of underlying comorbidities in people who are in prison — that those plans really just won't be sufficient," she said. 

Bodkin added that getting inmates access to soap and personal protective equipment, and giving them permission to communicate with people outside their facilities, would be beneficial to their physical and mental health. 

"The move to manage this through lockdowns, and the fear that I think many of us are feeling in the community, I suspect will have an even greater impact on on this population."


Written by Justin Chandler. Produced by Matt Amha and Kaitlyn Swan.

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