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'A death sentence:' Advocates warn of COVID-19 spread in jails, prisons

Advocates across Canada are calling for the release of non-violent offenders and a unified plan to deal with the health and safety of inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advocates across Canada are calling for the release of non-violent offenders and a unified plan to deal with the health and safety of inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"What we have is people in very close contact who have little or no say in the level of hygiene and no ability to self-isolate," says Amanda Hart-Dowhun, president of the Alberta Prison Justice Society.

She notes that Alberta inmates in courthouse holding cells do not have easy access to soap and water, and prisoner transport vehicles are only cleaned if someone inside shows COVID-19 symptoms.

"Once COVID hits an institution, it will be very difficult — if not impossible — to stop it from spreading within the entire institution."

In Ontario, the government confirmed Thursday that an inmate and a correctional officer have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Toronto South Detention Centre.

Dozens of organizations have sent letters to provincial and federal officials asking them to release non-violent inmates and people in remand centres awaiting trial.

They have also suggested granting some inmates early parole, as well as releasing all youth, asylum seekers and immigrants in custody.

Alberta is allowing people who serve jail time on weekends to self-isolate under house arrest, says Hart-Dowhun. It's also assessing cases of youth in custody who could be sent home.

Ontario announced this month that intermittent inmates serving on weekends will be granted temporary absences and the Ontario Parole Board can use alternatives to in-person meetings. The province's correctional services can also issue temporary absences beyond the current 72-hour maximum and early release will be granted to some inmates nearing the end of their sentences.

In Quebec, civil rights group Ligue des droits et libertes says prisoners who are sick or elderly, who are near the end of their sentences, who are pregnant, who are in immigration detention centres and those awaiting trial for non-violent crimes should be freed.

Spokeswoman Lucie Lemonde said in a statement Thursday that the only measure proposed so far — the suspension of intermittent sentences — is inadequate.

"What we are hearing from inside is alarming," she said, citing a lack of masks and protective gear for staff, a failure to distribute soap in one provincial jail and double occupation of cells.

"It's simple. To avoid a catastrophe, the release of prisoners must be accelerated."

In an open letter earlier this week, the Canadian Prison Law Association says Ontario's measures need to happen all over Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged Wednesday that prisoners are at higher risk of contracting and spreading the virus, but did not say whether federal officials have been in contact with provinces about a nationwide plan.

Sen. Kim Pate, a former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, says it's important to look at implementing those measures across the board to improve safety for inmates and the public.

"It would require co-operation of every province and territory, as well as the federal government to roll it out throughout the country."

Pate says there is also a section of the Criminal Code that allows the federal cabinet to grant prisoners who aren't deemed a public safety threat a conditional pardon and immediate release.

So far, federal officials have not said whether it is being considered.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said in a statement Wednesday that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is taking preventive measures to keep staff and inmates safe, but he did not provide specifics.

"CSC continues to examine available options in collaboration with the Parole Board of Canada," he said. "As COVID-19 impacts countries around the world, the response from our government and agencies will continue to evolve as needed to keep Canadians safe."

Pate says she has heard concerns that if conditions don't improve, there could be prison riots similar to those in Italy, where at least six inmates died.

"My hope would be that we do not get to that stage in Canada as it has in other countries where these issues were ignored."

Pamela Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer and chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, says the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 shows that Indigenous communities suffer higher infection and death rates.

To make matters worse, she adds, they are also disproportionately incarcerated.

"The fact that the major of federal and provincial governments have not communicated a comprehensive pandemic de-incarceration plan for Indigenous people is completely irresponsible," Palmater says.

She says Indigenous people in prisons also have higher rates of autoimmune diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, which could cause serious health complications if they contract COVID-19.

"The last thing we need is ... COVID-19 to break out," Palmater says.

"It risks the lives of these prisoners who are not there on a death sentence."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2020

Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press

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