Over 130 infected at Montreal jail; inmates kept in cells 23 hours per day, with showers rare

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A serious outbreak of COVID-19 is spreading through Bordeaux provincial jail, with more than 130 people infected. But everyone at the Montreal facility is feeling the effects, whether infected or not.

"It's like I'm sleeping in a refrigerator," one inmate who recently left the jail told CTV News.

The windows are left open for ventilation, even in polar vortex temperatures, said the recent inmate, Francis Paquette. He described leaving a carton of milk on a table when it was left over from dinner, and to find a little while later that it was ice cold.

According to the province's Public Security Ministry, as of Monday, 107 cases have been confirmed among the inmates, while 27 staff members have also tested positive for the virus. 

Because of the outbreak, inmates are kept in their cells for 23 hours a day, given the chance to shower only once a week, said one advocate. They also have no way to pass the time, he said. 

"The administration refuses to give them some books. It's impossible for the inmates to have books from the library," said Jean-Claude Bernheim, a criminology expert who has been following conditions at Bordeaux.

Family of inmates and other advocates held a drive-by protest on Sunday to denounce these conditions.

"Canadian courts have recognized that confining people to a cell for more than 23 hours a day for more than two weeks at a time is considered torture," said Ted Rutland, a member of one anti-carceral group.

"I think a lot of us understand something about the mental-health impacts of being confined to our homes due to our own little confirment, but it's nothing compared to what they're experiencing." 

The prison guards' union has its own complaints. It says social distancing is impossible in prisons and there aren't enough masks for the inmates. They're calling for the guards to be prioritized in Quebec's vaccination schedule. 

Most provinces have moved to release some prisoners early due to the pandemic, but Quebec hasn't followed suit to the same degree.

Inmate populations in Nova Scotia decreased by 40 per cent and in B.C., Alberta and Ontario by nearly 30 per cent. But in Quebec, numbers have decreased by just 14 per cent. 

Advocates say deaths will follow this decision. 

"We need to have a reflection when we're confronted with new situations," said Bernheim. "But with prisons, never reflections are done." 

Last week, an outbreak led to quarantines in at least three of the prison's sectors and a “massive screening” for the virus.

In this second wave, two inmates have died in the province from COVID-19: one at Bordeaux and one at the Federal Detention Centre in Laval.

Last spring, around 100 people at Bordeaux were infected in an outbreak, with one person dying.

 -With files from CTV Montreal's Max Harrold and Adam Kovac, and from The Canadian Press.

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