Prison Justice Activists in Ontario Shed Light on What Authorities Refuse to Disclose

Decarceration with no reentry plans; lockdowns as social distance; and rapidly spreading infection without protection

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

BY DANIELLE HURD and HEATHER McKEOWN

As concerns surrounding COVID-19 continue, there have been heightened calls for action within Canadian jails, prisons, correctional institutions, and immigration detention centres.

While the increased media attention paid to the wellbeing of incarcerated populations has offered a sense of hope for the improved treatment of prisoners, the Canadian response has, thus far, failed to take the appropriate measures to ensure the safety of those behind bars.

At some institutions, such as the OCI, no preventative measures were put in place to reduce the spread of the virus until staff and prisoners began exhibiting coronavirus symptoms.

To date, Canadian Federal corrections has released one person for medical reasons due to COVID-19,[1] while some provinces have been quicker to act. Ontario and the Northwest Territories have each reduced their prison populations by more than 25 percent in a concerted effort to reduce the spread of the virus.[2] However, details released by mainstream news media sources are scarce with regards to numbers of released prisoners in Ontario, the conditions for release, and plans for reentry.

In an effort to fill in these gaps, we called a number of provincially-run facilities across Ontario to gather information related to infection rates, testing measures, and decarceration criteria.

The majority of representatives at these institutions refused to speak with us, with the exception of a health department representative at the Monteith Correctional Complex in Iroquois Falls, who told us that both staff and prisoners are being tested, and that guidelines from the Ministry of Health are being followed (though no numbers were disclosed).

Facilities directed us to contact Brent Ross, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, who did not respond to our inquiries. However, prisoner advocates are making some extremely valuable information publicly available[3] and we spoke to prison justice activists Souheil Benslimane and D. Patterson[4] to fill in some of the discrepancies that we found between government commitments and what’s happening on the inside.

What’s Really Happening Inside Ontario Correctional Institutions?

[People behind bars are] seeing how serious it is for us out here, and yet, they’re inside being like, “Nothing’s changed. We’re not socially distancing, we’re still eating meals together – there’s nothing happening.

D. Patterson, April 17 2020[5]

At the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC), located in the nation’s capital, correctional officers have been refusing to work due to unsafe conditions, resulting in lockdowns and exacerbating the threatening conditions already present in the facility. As Benslimane explained during our interview, with health and safety conditions already at a heightened risk due to the pandemic, lockdown measures mean that prisoners can expect inconsistent meal distributions, sometimes receiving the same meal six times in a row.[6] He explained elsewhere that the effects of lockdown can also have brutal psychological impacts on prisoners.[7] Similarly, while guards and staff at the Laval Federal Training Centre had access to a new disinfectant, masks, and sanitizing materials, Correctional Services Canada (CSC) provides prisoners at this institution with only one bottle of spray, and one mask every three days. Rather than release more prisoners given these conditions, prisoners continue to be denied bail.

Benslimane spoke to someone currently incarcerated at OCDC who expressed concern regarding the quarantine measures that have been put in place in the facility. While there exists a separate quarantine area for infected individuals, it was reported that this area is not sufficiently cut-off from the rest of the facility. Correctional officers are reported to enter and exit the quarantined area without properly disinfecting before entering the general area of the facility. Non-isolated prisoners are close enough to the area to hear those quarantined coughing, and fear that these measures are not sufficient to protect them against infection.[8] Patterson brought up similar concerns at Ontario Correctional Institute (OCI), pointing out that equipment such as food trays are still being brought in and out of “quarantined” areas and into non-quarantined areas without being disinfected, and staff, such as nurses, are travelling between units to dispense medications.

At some institutions, such as the OCI, no preventative measures were put in place to reduce the spread of the virus until staff and prisoners began exhibiting coronavirus symptoms. Patterson told us, “[At] OCI, nobody was wearing masks yesterday [April 16], or for the previous month we’ve been going through this, and all of a sudden somebody tests positive, and now [there’s] fear. And so now the masks come out, now the gloves come out, now the isolating and the quarantining is starting.”[9]

At the time of our interview with Patterson (April 17), three OCI guards had tested positive for COVID-19 and there were zero confirmed prisoner cases.[10] As of April 20, sixty prisoners and eight staff have now tested positive.[11] These numbers are on par with the Mission Institute in B.C., which continues to have the highest number of confirmed cases in any federal facility, and where a coalition of rights groups are now calling for an immediate coroner’s inquest after the death of an inmate last week.[12]

In a recent press release, President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, Warren (Smokey) Thomas, confirmed that OCI has been temporarily closed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.[13] All correctional workers and prisoners (who have now been exposed to confirmed cases of the virus) will be temporarily transferred to the Toronto South Detention Centre (where three prisoners and one staff member have already tested positive).[14]

Who is Being Released, and Where Do They Go?

While some prisoners are being decarcerated across the country, many of those currently inside are unaware of how decisions are being made in terms of who is eligible for release. Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Bill Blair, commented that those serving short sentences and those who are awaiting trial would be “easy” to release, though no specific criteria for these decisions were made publicly available.

Blair noted that “unfortunately, more than half of them are in jail for very serious violent offences, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t have an obligation to keep them safe, but it does mean that it makes it very difficult just to release those people out into society.”

Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness[15]

Associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, Justin Piché, reported that the following carceral depopulation measures are currently in place to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in Canada: bail; community-based sentences; temporary absences; parole/ earned remission; royal prerogative of mercy; immigration bail; and other unspecified early release.[16] The Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General provided some vague information, noting that the following operational change is in effect in response to COVID-19: “Expanding the use of temporary absences, including reviewing lower-risk, eligible inmates near the end of their sentence for early release.”[17] However, we could not find any tangible criteria regarding who exactly is ‘lower-risk’ and eligible for release, or how those who are eligible might access this information.

Provided with one twenty dollar phone card per month (which equates to about two twenty minute long distance phone calls), while being denied visitation and programming, prisoners are struggling to keep in contact with lawyers who may be able to provide them with information about these release programs.[18] Many of those inside don’t know these programs exist, or don’t have the means to access them.

Patterson pointed out that this lack of transparency has been a longstanding issue for prisoner advocates: “Because of COVID-19, it’s even more heightened right now. But nothing’s changed in the conversation between us workers and the Ministry, and Corrections. It’s still very non-transparent. . . top down, they do a very good job at trying to limit information that gets out.”

D. Patterson, April 17 2020[19]

For those who are aware of the measures being taken by the government, some have expressed concern regarding the political motivations driving these measures. There exist fears that prisoner safety is being promoted as a way for politicians to appear as though public health issues are being addressed, while actual measures are being half-heartedly implemented in correctional institutions. The public health focus of the conversations taking place dismisses the abuses experienced by those inside before COVID-19. While the pandemic has brought some of these conditions to the forefront, it is concerning for those inside that a global pandemic is what’s needed to occur for these conversations to start happening.[20]

In Ontario alone, more than 2,300 prisoners have been released from provincial institutions since March 16,[21] however there don’t appear to be any additional support systems in place for those people regarding healthcare or housing upon release. Patterson emphasized how problematic this is, since many of those being released do not have stable housing or familial support to return to.

“I think it’s unfair of us to release folks to nowhere. Right now, we can still push for depopulation and decarceration of folks inside, but you can’t group them now into the homeless category because we already have enough homeless people. Our folks are just going to get lost in the mix again. There needs to be specific housing for folks getting released.”

D. Patterson, April 17, 2020[22]

At the time of publication, we were not able to find any supports available for recently released prisoners regarding access to safe housing. As one jail staff member told us,“Whatever supports were in place before will be in place now. Nothing new has been established since the COVID-19 outbreak.” We also reached out to the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General, whose job it is to ensure “correctional systems are safe, effective, efficient and accountable”,[23] but have not received any information on policies regarding inmate decarceration or housing support for those released at this time.

Governmental Response Has Been Unclear and Inadequate

Bill Blair recently addressed public concerns regarding Canada’s plan to ensure safety in prisons.[24] He emphasized that all correctional officers and prisoners are being issued Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and ensured citizens that prisoners are safely isolated in their cells.

While Blair’s assurance regarding access to PPE contradicts reports from those inside OCDC and OCI, his plan for creating more masks is perhaps even more troubling.

Blair noted that prisoners across the country will be making their own masks: “I wanted to make sure that every inmate had access to personal protection equipment, and that they could make a mask. They have workshops in our prisons and in our federal institutions, and they are now making masks. And within two weeks, the prison system in Canada will be completely self-sufficient and make, for themselves, all the masks that they need.”

Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness[25]

Blair did not respond to questions posed in the comment-section of the Facebook-Live, where the event was hosted, which centered around the medical-grade quality of the masks, the compensation of prisoners as they are made to produce labour for their own safety, or the safety of the conditions in which these masks are being created.

Blair ensured that prisoners are safely “isolated and segregated in their cells”, though prisoners at OCI reported eating meals together and sharing recreational facilities.[26] While these conflicting reports of isolation levels are troubling, prisoners are faced with a double-edged sword in either case: complete segregation in their cells, or face a heightened risk of infection in a facility that is particularly vulnerable to spreading the disease.

While those outside of the prison system are quarantined to our houses, those inside don’t have the privileges of ‘Zoom’ chats, phone calls, or walks around the block.

Patterson emphasizes this point: “I have the privilege of opening my windows, going for a walk, having access to sanitizer and cleaning products. Folks inside, they get locked up twenty three hours a day, no sanitizer, no masks, no gloves, and no ability to control their own health destiny. A lot of folks inside are sitting anxiously waiting for it to get in their institution.”

D. Patterson, April 17, 2020[27]

As the COVID-19 situation continues to unfold, it’s clear that more needs to be done to support those who are currently incarcerated, as well as those who have been released during this pandemic. At the bare minimum, preventative measures such as the use of PPE must be implemented at all institutions, both provincially and federally; the Ministry and Corrections must provide clear communication with those currently incarcerated; and support systems to secure safe housing must be established immediately to support those who have been decarcerated. The COVID-19 situation is a tragedy, yet it presents an opportunity to improve the way we treat our most vulnerable populations. It is imperative that we take advantage of this moment and work towards the safety and protection of all those living in what has been called Canada.


FOOTNOTES

[1]Sean Fine, “Correctional Service Canada releases first federal inmate owing to medical vulnerability to COVID-19”, The Globe and Mail, April 16, 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-csc-releases-first-federal-inmate-owing-to-medical-vulnerability-to/ 

[2]Justin Ling, “COVID-19 spurs prison reform from provinces but federal government slow to act”, National Post, April 15, 2020, https://nationalpost.com/news/covid-19-spurs-prison-reform-from-provinces-but-federal-government-slow-to-act

[3] Justin Piché, “Tracking the Politics of Criminalization and Punishment in Canada”, April 10, 2020, http://tpcp-canada.blogspot.com/2020/04/carceral-institution-management_10.html

[4] In order to protect our source from any negative implications that may result from personal identification, some names and identifying details have been altered for privacy purposes

[5] D. Patterson (prison justice activist) in a discussion with Heather McKeown, April 17.

[6] Souheil Benslimane (prison justice activist) in a discussion with Danielle Hurd, April 17.

[7]Stephen Hoff, “Jail guards want COVID-19 screening at Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre”, CBC News, April 1, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/active-monitoring-ocdc-covid19-1.5516645

[8]  Souheil Benslimane (prison justice activist) in a discussion with Danielle Hurd, April 17.

[9] D. Patterson (prison justice activist) in a discussion with Heather McKeown, April 17.

[10]Miriam Katawazi, “Three correctional officers in Brampton test positive for COVID-19”, CTV News, April 15, 2020, https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/three-correctional-officers-in-brampton-test-positive-for-covid-19-1.4898332

[11] Cristina Howorun, “60 inmates, 8 staff test positive for coronavirus at Brampton jail”, City News, April 19, 2020, https://toronto.citynews.ca/2020/04/19/exclusive-sources-say-brampton-jail-to-shut-down-amid-outbreak-of-covid-19/

[12] “B.C. rights groups call for release of as many inmates as possible during COVID outbreak”, CTV News, April 17, 2020,  https://bc.ctvnews.ca/b-c-rights-groups-call-for-release-of-as-many-inmates-as-possible-during-covid-outbreak-1.4900842

[13] “OPSEU: Management incompetence led to outbreak at Brampton’s Ontario Correctional Institute“, OPSEU SEFPO, April 20, 2020, https://opseu.org/news/opseu-management-incompetence-led-to-outbreak-at-bramptons-ontario-correctional-institute/105438/

[14] “Ontario shifts COVID-19 testing focus as cases top 6,000”, CBC News, April 10, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/covid-19-coronavirus-good-friday-testing-guidelines-1.5529076?fbclid=IwAR0f5NfzPSYC8mpg1b_gzzKCXUEuC4-AzOOub_2ctVGRbqA3VpJK8igmLEw

[15] Gary Anandasangaree’s Facebook Page, accessed April 17, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/garyforsrp/videos/266944237657440

[16] Piché, “Tracking the Politics of Criminalization and Punishment in Canada”, 2020, http://tpcp-canada.blogspot.com/2020/04/carceral-institution-management_10.html

[17] “Ministry of the Solicitor General”, Government of Ontario, April 9, 2020. https://www.mcscs.jus.gov.on.ca/english/Corrections/CorrectionalServicesUpdateCOVID19.html

[18]  Souheil Benslimane (prison justice activist) in a discussion with Danielle Hurd, April 17.

[19] D. Patterson (prison justice activist) in a discussion with Heather McKeown, April 17.

[20]  Souheil Benslimane (prison justice activist) in a discussion with Danielle Hurd, April 17.

[21] “More than 2,000 inmates released, 6 COVID-19 cases confirmed inside Ontario jails”, CBC News, April 9, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-jails-coronavirus-1.5527677

[22] D. Patterson (prison justice activist) in a discussion with Heather McKeown, April 17.

[23] Government of Ontario,Ministry of the Solicitor General,  July 2, 2019,  https://www.ontario.ca/page/ministry-solicitor-general

[24] Gary Anandasangaree’s Facebook Page, accessed April 17, 2020

[25]Gary Anandasangaree’s Facebook Page, accessed April 17, 2020

[26] Alyshah Hasham, “Three guards test positive in COVID-19 outbreak at Brampton jail, health unit rushing tests for inmates”, Toronto Star, April 16, 2020, https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/04/16/three-guards-test-positive-in-covid-19-outbreak-at-brampton-jail-health-unit-rushing-tests-for-inmates.html?fbclid=IwAR2IyU21uCxcygsTlrUZLFO8OcIiEM7paTAk6Tp9OgTkDK8GGoc0fmGr424 ; “Gary Anandasangaree’s Facebook Page.”

[27] D. Patterson (prison justice activist) in a discussion with Heather McKeown, April 17.

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