Prisoners’ Lives in the Hands of Corrections Officers: When COVID, Labour Conditions, and Health Collide

By: Emily Marra, Hen Povereni, and Natasha McMillan 

Art by: Jaclyn Rosenzweig/The Temple News

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.[1] This sparked a dialogue regarding one of society’s most ill-protected and often forgotten populations: incarcerated individuals. Abolitionists have long argued that systems of incarceration are ineffective in reducing crime. [2] Why then does the Canadian government continue to rely on incarceration as a crime-control mechanism, especially during this crisis? The inability to physically distance themselves from one another places them at a high risk of infection. As the spread of COVID-19 increases within correctional facilities, we need to hold the state accountable in ethically managing the spread of the virus among the vulnerable populations it detains. 

The Ontario Correctional Institute and the Outbreak of COVID-19

While inmates are confined to jails and prisons, they are at a high risk of being exposed to the virus by correctional officers and staff who move in and out of correctional institutions on a daily basis. On March 17, 2020, Ontario announced a state of emergency concerning COVID-19.[3] Since then, what has the province of Ontario done to protect inmates and front-line officers from the virus? 

We reached out to a correctional officer employed at the Ontario Correctional Institute (OCI) to find out how the situation was being mediated through their work conditions.[4] The OCI is a treatment-based, provincially-run correctional facility for convicted and sentenced men suffering from mental illness and addiction. The correctional officer informed us that following the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, front-line staff requested that the ministry supply them with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, and sanitizers. Their requests were denied. When it was asked if they could bring in their own masks, again, they were denied. In addition to the lack of PPE, there was no screening or testing of inmates until symptoms of the virus began to show, which could take up to two weeks. [5] Therefore, the spread of the virus could have been severe by the time testing began. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened. 

In mid-April, the outbreak of COVID-19 began at the OCI. While inmates with less than six months left to serve were released, the remainder were left vulnerable to contracting the virus inside the facility. Officers were finally authorized to bring in their own masks, as long as it was approved by security. Inmates were not provided protection during this time.[6] The correctional officer at the OCI called this “absolute mismanagement,” stating that delaying safety protocols put inmates, officers, and their families in harm’s way. Inmates should have immediately been restricted from eating meals together, working out together, and receiving medication in the same space. Unfortunately, social distancing did not occur, until inmates began testing positive for the virus. Without approval from management, front-line officers were not authorized to implement such protocols. 

In addition, dormitory-style living meant that inmates were sleeping less than two feet apart from one another, while two to three correctional officers were sharing small one-unit offices. Although the OCI stopped the intake of new inmates, the failure to provide officers with PPE and implement safety protocols led to the rapid spread of COVID-19 throughout the institution. In total, 78 out of the 113 inmates tested positive, three of whom had to be hospitalized and placed on respirators due to the severity of their symptoms. [7] Evidently, the Ministry of the Solicitor General failed to listen to and protect front-line staff and inmates. We reached out to the Solicitor General as well as her Parliamentary Assistant for comments. Unfortunately, we were unable to reach them. On April 22, 2020, a deal was finally reached between the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and the Ministry permitting Ontario correctional staff to be equipped with PPE.[8] But for the OCI, this authorization came weeks too late. 

The Displacement and Increased Vulnerabilities Among OCI Inmates 

The agreement to provide PPE to correctional staff came forty-eight hours after the OCI was shut down by the Ontario government due to the outbreak. [9] On Tuesday April 21st, all inmates – healthy and infected – were transferred to the Toronto South Detention Centre where they were quarantined for fourteen days. Our source revealed that in the midst of the outbreak and transfer to Toronto South, the inmates experienced heightened anxiety levels. Inmates who are denied release not only face a disproportionate risk of contracting the virus but are also forced into increasingly punitive conditions as facilities attempt to contain its spread. Ivan Zinger, Correctional Investigator of Canada, has stated that the increased restrictions and isolation of inmates in an effort to contain COVID-19 presents concerning violations to inmates’ human rights.[10] 

What Does COVID-19 Mean for the Abolition Movement? 

Those who are imprisoned are not alone in feeling increasingly vulnerable to the power that prison authorities and the state hold over their health and safety as COVID-19 unfolds. Legal professionals and scholars are criticizing the rollout of penalties for failing to socially distance, citing concern that fines will disproportionately impact marginalized communities and people of colour, therefore exacerbating existing inequalities.[11] Failure to abide by social distancing rules can result in incarceration,[12] which is not logical given the rapid spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. Health, safety, and the ability to physically distance are not equal for everyone. We must question whose health is being protected and prioritized during this pandemic and at whose expense.[13] 

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to advance the abolition movement. In a recent interview, [14] Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains that organizations such as anti-domestic violence advocates, labour unions, housing advocates, food and healthcare organizations, public health advocates, and prisoner-rights advocates, among others, are convening in the face of COVID-19. These organizations help to relieve inequalities and are central to the abolition movement. Decarceration alone is not abolition. Instead, as Gilmore explains, “abolition is about abolishing the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons.” [15] Therefore, we must organize around existing resources that address vulnerabilities. In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while also creating safe and healthy communities, incarceration cannot be the response. 


[1] Leslie Young, “Timeline: How Canada has changed since coronavirus was declared as a pandemic”, Global News, April 11, 2020,

[2] Beth E. Richie and Kayla M. Martensen. “Resisting carcerality, embracing abolition: Implications for feminist social work practices.” Journal of Women and Social Work, 35(1): 1-5, 2020. 

[3] Ibid. 1. 

[4] The correctional officer has asked that we do not disclose their identity. 

[5] Correctional officer at OCI, interviewed by us on April 26, 2020. 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Ibid. 

[8] Liam Casey, “Ontario jail guards allowed to wear masks during pandemic after deal reached”, The Canadian Press, April 23, 2020, after-deal-reached-1.4909119

[9] Cristina Howorun, “Exclusive: Ontario provides PPE for correctional staff after coronavirus outbreak closes Brampton jail”, City News, April 22, 2020, staff-ppe-coronavirus/

[10] Colin Perkel, “Canada’s prison ombudsmen calls coronavirus isolation ‘extremely concerning’”, City News, April 24, 2020, concerning/

[11] Giuseppe Valiante, “Harsh fines and policing don’t protect people from COVID-19, criminologists say”, Global News, April 16, 2020,

[12] Adina Bresge, “Policing the pandemic will put marginalized communities at risk, advocates say”, National Post, April 3, 2020, marginalized-communities-at-risk-advocates-say 

[13] Robyn Maynard and Andrea J. Ritchie, “Black communities need support, not a coronavirus police state”, Vice, April 2, 2020, state?fbclid=IwAR1i_qY0ClpAaDI4kJhBi0tBSwtxeCiik3P9PDA1zxQ-0w7JeUXtc8YXzoU  

[14] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Covid 19, decarceration, and abolition (Full). [Video file]”, Haymarket Books, April 17, 2020,

[15] Ibid. 15. 12:50 

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