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A COVID-19 plan needed for Canada's prisons

Immediate measures needed to deal with the pandemic, and an explosive situation, in federal institutions.

Prison yard picture

Take prisoners held in close quarters with inadequate levels of health care at the best of times, or immigration detainees held in over-crowded facilities. Add in a lack of access to hygiene products and an inability to practice social distancing, multiplied by a quickly spreading and deadly virus with no known cure. It all adds up to trouble.

“We believe that few situations are as potentially explosive and life-threatening because of the COVID-19 pandemic as those within Canada’s prisons, jails and immigration detention facilities – for those detained and for the general public,” the CBA’s Criminal Justice and Immigration Law sections say in a letter to Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.

“We urge you to act now to prepare detailed action plans for prevention and treatment of COVID-19 among incarcerated and detained populations and to make those plans easily available to the public,” the Sections added. “We believe the current situation may become dire.”

There are significant health and human rights considerations for both the incarcerated and general population if COVID-19 spreads unchecked through federal facilities. Measures to deal with the virus spreading from the incarcerated population to the correctional staff, and vice-versa, need to be put in place immediately.

The CBA has previously raised concerns about inadequate health care in federal facilities, and demands on the system are only going to increase as the prison population continues to age.

The Sections reminded the Minister that the CBA has argued that incarceration and detention should be the option of last resort when necessary for public safety. With the looming public health crisis, it’s important to consider releasing non-violent detainees from custody in prisons and detention facilities.

Other recommendations include expanding the use of conditional pardons under the Criminal Code, expediting the process for applying for parole, and expanding the use of and relaxing requirements for temporary absences and intermittent sentences. The Sections suggest coordinating between federal, provincial and territorial agencies for a consistent approach.

“The overuse of lockdowns, eliminating outdoor recreational time and ending personal visits will impact the physical and mental health of those detained,” the Sections say. “The long-term consequences of protracted detention during this health crisis cannot be over-stated.”