Ryan Beardy is a justice advocate, mentor, public speaker and freelance journalist based out of Winnipeg.
I’d often wondered, staring at the grime-encrusted concrete walls in the prison cell I was in, whether or not they’d ever been scrubbed before. Did some previous inmate ever take the initiative to pester the guards for a bucket of water and some soap? It was already bad enough I was in a space so small I could touch the walls, finger-to-finger, when swaying back and forth in the middle of the room, stuck here with a roommate that I didn’t know. I never asked; I didn’t want to find out the answer.
Those cell walls always felt like such an inadequate barrier to the common cold or flu. If we heard just one cough, we knew a virus could be coming soon for the entire ward. I never felt confident in the ventilation systems in any of those institutions; they always seemed to circulate the same stale air, carrying the snores of the men sleeping in other cells.
It’s hard to shake my memories of prison, where I spent more than 10 years, as the novel coronavirus pandemic now sweeps across the world. The responses to the outbreaks have produced massive changes to how we live, in order to save lives and flatten the curve. But those same precautions are not being taken inside already overpopulated correctional institutions, where people are most susceptible to an accelerated spread of the virus.
Every day, there are new cases behind bars, and the real number of undiagnosed cases is likely higher, as the rate of inmate testing is low. As of Sunday, only 299 tests had been completed in Canada’s federal institutions; of those, 76 were positive. On the weekend, officials said five inmates in B.C. had been hospitalized and four guards had tested positive at just one prison. The Elizabeth Fry Society has also reported multiple positive cases in women’s prisons.
Prisoners already endure significantly worse health outcomes. They have higher rates of blood-borne infections and higher mortality rates. And the close confinement that defines prison makes it a breeding ground for the coronavirus, which could overload the strapped health care system and cause prisoners to go “without adequate treatment, which will in turn create and increase risks for prisoners,” Senator Kim Pate said in a recent statement.
She is right. I can still remember the dirty sinks in holding cells and how they only worked at about 80-per-cent capacity; there was rarely any soap. And I can still hear the crank of the doors reeling back as stampeding bodies rushed out of the range, or cell block. I would follow the crowd, bumping into a sea of inmates. Getting from point A to point B required numerous checkpoints and crowded holding cells. The justice system’s intake process – which involves shuttling between police services, courts and correctional facilities – also puts inmates at higher risk of prolonged exposure to someone who may be infected.
The situation has also put corrections officers at risk. This weekend, their union said that 56 officers have been infected, and guards at one Ontario jail have refused to go to work due to a lack of screening. If this trend continues, little will insulate inmates from being left behind.
And in many of the aging federal institutions, double bunking – where two inmates are housed in a cell built for one – is treated as standard practice, according to a Canadian Centre for Public Policy report.
“We recognize that the incarcerated population is at greater risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said. Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair has asked prisons and the parole board to consider early release of prisoners, while Ontario has announced it will release those nearing the end of their sentence.
The Correctional Investigator of Canada, meanwhile, has said there is “a legal obligation to ensure reasonable access to essential health care.” Correctional Service Canada said it continues to follow public health guidance.
That is not enough. Canada’s Justice Minister must issue an immediate directive to release and support inmates who are immuno-compromised, elderly or pregnant. This should also include minimum-security, non-violent offenders and those nearing release dates, as well as those on remand status, where possible. A crisis-management plan for prisoners must be made public as soon as possible as well.
Canada’s coronavirus response will be a failure if nothing is done to protect those incarcerated. As Nelson Mandela said, “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” That rings especially true now.
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