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Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge on Feb. 24, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

In the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, a large cluster of COVID-19 infections prompted a lockdown in a prisoner unit that has lasted for weeks. The lockdown was meant to contain the outbreak, which has now spread to 31 inmates and five workers, and imposes strict isolation, where the inmates are permitted to leave their cells for just 120 minutes, every 26 to 30 hours.

In the province’s 10 correction centres, prisoners’ rights advocates say increased isolation owing to pandemic restrictions has created living conditions that are often below the minimum standards set by the United Nations.

At the same time, the pandemic has created the opportunity for a remarkable change: The province has almost eliminated the chronic challenge of overcrowding, and violence within the facilities has dropped significantly as a result.

“The pandemic has shone a light on how it is possible to get the [prisoner] counts down. It gives us an opportunity to examine the system,” said Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS), a British Columbia-based legal aid clinic.

Ms. Metcalfe says the reduction in overcrowding is a welcome change, but her organization is pushing BC Corrections to ensure that COVID-19 is not used to justify harsh conditions. Inmates have reported being denied time out of their cells to shower, to use the phones, or to get out into the yard or gym for exercise and human contact. People have been held in induction units – where newcomers are quarantined – for as long as 30 days. “We shouldn’t be putting people into conditions that are considered cruel treatment or torture,” she said.

The population, overall, has been dramatically reduced.

BC Corrections’ in-custody count dropped from approximately 2,200 in mid-March, when pandemic safety measures were imposed, to between 1,400 and 1,500 by mid-June.

About two dozen people, all with fewer than 60 days left of their sentences, were released early. Mostly, the reduction was achieved by putting fewer people into remand – custody for people who have not been convicted of a criminal offence, often as they await trail. Remand prisoners normally account for two-thirds of the inmates in the provincial system, but the courts have been prioritizing trials and sentencing owing to the pandemic, leading to fewer admissions into custody.

That change meant that problems with double-bunking that have persisted for more than a decade were eliminated in a matter of weeks. In 2008, the province was adding what it called “sprung structures” – more commonly recognized as tents – on the grounds of corrections facilities to alleviate overcrowding. It has since expanded permanent capacity, but overcrowding, until the pandemic, had remained embedded in the system.

Today, the average rate of double bunking across the province ranges from zero to 3 per cent, down from 15 per cent in early 2020.

That reduction has eased the most difficult result of overcrowding – the province’s prisons are now less dangerous, according to the prisons workers’ union.

“There is a direct correlation between overcrowding and violence,” said Dean Purdy, who heads the Correctional and Sheriff Services component of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union. The summary for violent incidents reported in 2020 will be available soon, but he expects the data to show that inmate-on-inmate assaults and inmate-on-officer assaults went down by at least 50 per cent since the reduction in the population. “Going forward, we are asking to keep the numbers down.”

Mr. Purdy said the union is still pushing for better COVID-19 safety measures in corrections facilities, such as Plexiglas barriers, and his members are still anxious about the risk of infection. There have been three COVID-19 outbreaks in maximum-security facilities in the Lower Mainland. “It’s wearing thin, after a year, our members are tired.”

Last spring at Mission Institution, a federal prison in B.C., a total of 120 inmates and 12 staff members tested positive. There have been several outbreaks in provincial-run facilities as well, including Fraser Regional, and some corrections officers have invoked their right to refuse unsafe work, citing the risk of COVID-19.

A sign is seen at the road leading to the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge, on Feb. 24, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The risk to both corrections staff and prisoners from COVID-19 was recognized early on – similar to long-term care, the province’s prisons feature shared living quarters, with a vulnerable population that tends to have a high rate of chronic disease.

“Being in that communal living setting, we know the virus can spread really really quickly,” said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, in an interview.

B.C. is using rapid testing kits at five of its corrections facilities to test everyone coming into the system in a bid to keep COVID-19 from getting in. Inmates are also quarantined upon arrival. And the province has made immunization a priority. While much of the public focus has been on providing those in long-term care facilities with the scarce COVID-19 vaccines available in B.C., roughly 500 inmates have been vaccinated so far.

“It’s not politically popular, necessarily,” Dr. Henry said. “But it is important.”

Advocates for prison reform say B.C. has demonstrated it can reduce its prison population. The concern, however, is that overcrowding will return, as the courts begin to work through a backlog of cases. Already, the provincial corrections population has crept up again, to 1,550.

Because their people are greatly overrepresented in the corrections system, Indigenous leaders raised the alarm soon after COVID-19 arrived in B.C. The BC First Nations Justice Council called for efforts to release as many people as possible last April. The council noted that almost 40 per cent of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Mission Institution were Indigenous inmates. Indigenous people make up about 5 per cent of the population of B.C.

Kukpi7 Judy Wilson from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said B.C. could further reduce incarceration rates by dealing with systemic issues of poverty and addictions, rather than criminalizing the behaviour those problems create. The organization is calling broadly for reform of policing and the justice system – reduced crowding in prisons would be a side benefit.

“The changes that COVID has called for need to be continued, because they have showed the inequities and human-rights violations that many of our men, women and youth are experiencing,” Chief Wilson said. “A lot of people who are incarcerated just needed adequate housing and other supports.”

Dr. Henry agreed. She pointed to the population at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women, where Indigenous women make up the majority of inmates, and most of them are in for low-level drug offences. Decriminalization of drug use is not just good health policy, she said, but it is a necessary step toward reconciliation.

“This is part of an underlying ethical principle, about how we as a society protect and care for people who are the most marginalized.”

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