Inmates across Canada are speaking out as COVID-19 infections spread within federal and provincial correctional facilities, with prisoner advocates saying the situation is only getting worse.

Corey Watson, an inmate at the Joyce Institution in Kingston, Ont., who tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month, told CTVNews.ca in a video interview that he and others are “basically just waiting for everyone to get it ... You feel powerless.”

As of Jan. 3, there were 268 active cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Canada’s federal prisons, according to Correctional Service Canada. Of those active cases, 110 were in Saskatchewan Penitentiary near Prince Albert, 62 cases in Stony Mountain Institution near Winnipeg and 66 in Joyceville -- which declared an outbreak on Dec. 17.

Watson and his fellow inmates at Joyceville said the virus has spread through the prison like a wildfire, and place the blame on Correctional Service Canada, which is responsible for federal institutions, prison administrators and correctional officers. He wants them to do better because he feels inmates’ lives are “in their hands.”

Another Joyceville inmate, John Whalen, told CTVNews.ca in a separate video interview that he feels relentless dread, only leaving his cell to shower.

“It’s pretty terrifying at the end of the day if I’m going to make it out... and I know if I do catch COVID, they’re not going to do anything to help me,” he said, adding that inmates like him, who have notices for early medical release, aren’t being fast-tracked out.

Tara Baker, Whalen’s wife and the mother of his 17-month-old baby, said the constant uncertainty surrounding his safety is “not something I’d wish upon anyone.”

Inmates in Joyceville, like Whalen and Watson, allege that they have no regular access to masks, hand sanitizer or gloves; infected people live in the same cell ranges as healthy inmates; and that guards inconsistently wear masks. They also allege scheduled releases and parole hearings for some have been pushed back indefinitely. According to inmates, correctional officers even punish those who make their own face coverings from bed sheets and tear down inmates’ makeshift physical distancing barriers.

Last month, inmates in Joyceville released a public letter through the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project, alleging these and other widespread issues. “We’re consistently being told we’re safer in prison, yet now it’s clear that this isn’t actually the case and there appears to be no plan,” the letter said. “We’re in a prison with COVID. It can’t get much worse for us.”

Rajean Hoilett, an organizer of the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project who regularly speaks with inmates and their families, relayed what he was told by an inmate who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Hoilett alleges a nurse told this inmate: “You made bad choices and that’s why you ended up in jail -- that’s why you have COVID.” Hoilett said it likely wasn’t a one-off incident, saying, “this is the kind of medical treatment that folks are being subjected to. It is hard to be able to hear these stories.”

CTVNews.ca sent a list of inmates’ allegations to Correctional Service Canada (CSC), which is responsible for Joyceville, asking whether inmates’ concerns would be investigated. CSC Senior Communications Advisor Isabelle Robitaille responded to the question by saying the “CSC has not received an official complaint regarding COVID-19 prevention and management measures or improper actions of an employee at Joyceville Institution. However, when an offender is dissatisfied with an action or a decision by a staff member, CSC's offender grievance or complaint procedure is available.”

The spokesperson added that “CSC is committed to ensuring that offenders' concerns are heard and that their complaints or grievances are resolved in a fair and timely manner. Offenders may also submit complaints to the Office of the Correctional Investigator.”

Robitaille also said that “Joyceville Institution has dedicated staff cleaners on site, and they continue to hire more as we move forward in the pandemic. This is all done in order to ensure that showers and telephones are disinfected after each use. We also have dedicated health services on site with the equipment needed to monitor and treat inmates.”

In a separate email, CSC spokesperson Kerry Gatien said the federal agency has “implemented extensive measures” which include “increased physical distancing within the sites, masking, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting at sites.”

“We are working in close collaboration with public health partners to adapt our approaches and take additional measures, as needed,” Gatien added.

When it came to inmates saying not enough of them are being fast-tracked out, Gatien said that “CSC and the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) continue to process eligible inmates for release in accordance with the law. A number of considerations go into release decision-making with public safety being the paramount consideration. Since the beginning of March 2020, the federal custody population has declined by 1,366 inmates. This reduction is the result of fewer admissions from the provinces and territories coupled with continued releases into the community.”

“The safety and security of staff, offenders and the public is our top priority throughout this public health pandemic,” the spokesperson said. “This is an evolving situation that we continue to monitor closely.”

ALLEGATIONS ECHOED AT TORONTO SOUTH

Hoilett and other prisoners’ rights advocates say complaints from Joyceville inmates were similar to ones in the provincially-run Toronto South Detention Centre, the site of a COVID-19 outbreak that was also reported last month. There are 16 reported positive COVID-19 cases there, down from an initial 54 cases, according to figures from the Ministry of the Solicitor General of Ontario.

Inmates and advocacy groups such as The Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project and Think 2wice, a project focused on crime prevention and rehabilitation, allege guards and administrators in Toronto South aren’t following Ontario’s purported guidelines.

“On every different [cell] range, inmates have the same complaints. The disregard for life, the inhuman treatment, to me, is outrageous,” Zya Brown, Think 2wice’s founder and director, told CTVNews.ca in a video interview. “We have the power. We’re the taxpayers. We need to hold them accountable.”

Her group, which speaks directly with inmates in Toronto South and their families, alleges that:

  • inmates aren’t being separated from those infected with the virus and aren’t being given masks or COVID-19 tests en masse;
  • excessive reliance on lockdowns, a procedure similar to solitary confinement in which inmates can’t leave their cells for most of the day,
  • a lack of access to regular showers, with some inmates only bathing once every two weeks; and,
  • officers not consistently wearing masks, nor swapping out their personal protective equipment in between individual cell checks.

Brown said the COVID-19 outbreak there and excessive lockdowns prompted approximately 30 men to go on hunger strike last month until conditions change. This is at least the eighth strike during the pandemic that the Toronto South inmates have held. She said their situation is “personal for me,” as she currently has a loved one in Toronto South.

Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General, which is responsible for Toronto South, refuted inmates’ allegations. Its full response is at the bottom of this article.

In an email, spokesperson Brent Ross said “protecting the health and safety of correctional services staff and those in provincial custody is the ministry’s top priority.”

He added that in provincial institutions, COVID-19 safety policies are being followed, including, “masks [being] provided to inmates, if required” and that they’re “housing all newly admitted inmates in a separate area from the general population for 14 days.”

“Voluntary testing of staff, as well as inmates within the same units, are underway,” he said, noting that 16,000 COVID-19 tests have been conducted at provincial correctional facilities in total.

But those with family members in Toronto South and Joyceville are telling a different story, and say these official statements aren’t enough.

“I thought because it was a government-run facility, they’d follow a strict protocol,” Kerri Lockrey, who is friends with Joyceville inmate Watson, told CTVNews.ca in a video interview. She called it “disgusting” and “ridiculous” that the CSC and Joyceville staff failed to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak. “People make mistakes but that doesn’t mean their life is any less valuable.”

Whalen’s wife said that before he was incarcerated last January, he had spent 28 months recovering from a drug dependency, while on bail for a parole violation for testing positive for narcotics in December 2017.

During that time, the employees at his small roofing business had looked to him as an example of how to turn their own lives around. But in January 2020, he hit a roadblock when the court sentenced him for that 2017 parole violation and he was taken into custody just before the pandemic hit, Tara Baker said.

Now, Whalen worries that because of COVID-19, it might not be up to him at all if he’ll get to return to his life and resume his progress.

“It all could be for nothing because I might be never getting out because I could be leaving in a body bag.”

ADVOCATES: PREVENTATIVE ACTIONS WERE MISSED

But none of this had to happen, advocates say. Throughout the pandemic, Correctional Service Canada has faced strong criticism for being caught flat-footed when it comes to enforcing COVID-19 precautions consistently.

Since the pandemic started, “things have gotten worse” and are on track to continue, Justin Piché, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

“During the start of the pandemic, so mid-March to mid-July, there were 600 prisoners that had tested positive for COVID-19 across Canada and 229 staff members. In the past two months, we have seen well over a 1,000 reported cases,” said Piché, an organizer for Criminalization and Punishment Education Project who's been tracking the biggest outbreaks of federal and provincial institutions throughout the pandemic.

Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project organizer Hoilett called the outbreaks in federal and provincial institutions “inevitable.” He said “a lot of us were really hoping that we’d be proven wrong.”

Hoilett said Toronto South and other remand institutions -- which house people awaiting trial, but can’t secure bail – missed a huge opportunity by not easing up enough on bail requirements.

Six out of 10 inmates in all provincial and territorial correctional institutions are in this category, according to recent Statistics Canada data, with 35 per cent of that group’s criminal charges never resulting in a guilty verdict, the BC Civil Liberties Association found.

And there was even some precedent for releasing these and other inmates.

During the first pandemic wave, provincial and territorial institutions quietly slashed the number of prisoners by 25 per cent, or about 6,000 fewer inmates, according to Statistics Canada. These inmates were either awaiting trial or serving sentences of two years or less. In Ontario alone, there was around a 30-per-cent decrease, or around 2,400 inmates.

“We saw in a matter of weeks, things happened that they [provincial officials] spent years saying was not possible,” Piché said. “The fact that we haven’t had a rash of law-breaking associated with de-population [of prisons] just shows you how ridiculous the previous situation of how we used remands was… and ignored people’s right to be presumed innocent.”

Hoilett agreed, saying that “strategy is what kept people alive” because it allowed inmates who remained incarcerated to more easily physically distance.

Piché explained this depopulation of prisons was mostly due to prosecutors being encouraged to enter into consent-bail agreements with defendants whenever possible; having justices and justices of the peace more willing to offer bail, and having people serving weekend intermittent sentences at home, instead of going into the prisons.

“It’s confusing that that was a strategy that was abandoned through the pandemic,” Hoilett said. Piché added that since the spring, “[cases] have accelerated behind prison walls, just as they have in the community. And governments seem to be doing less this time around, unbelievably.”

Piché said Canada’s prisons also missed another opportunity to de-populate by not seriously considering releasing non-violent inmates over 50 years old.

The age group makes up a quarter of federal inmates and about 10 per cent of provincial and territorial prisons, according to the criminal justice reform non-profit John Howard Society and Statistics Canada, respectively. Piché said they should be targeted because their age group is disproportionately hospitalized and killed by COVID-19.

But when it came to general depopulation efforts across federal institutions, like Joyceville, Piché said: “The federal government never got on board to begin with in a serious way.”

While provincial jails slashed their populations by a quarter between February and April, Correctional Services Canada only reduced its prison population by one per cent during that same period, according to Statistics Canada. And unlike other jurisdictions -- which extended temporary absences or multi-day passes -- Piché said federal bodies banned those altogether.

And he said those actions need to be undone immediately.

“There’s a lot of people languishing in federal penitentiaries right now that can be safely released,” Piché said, adding that money should also be moved to temporary and permanent housing for both former inmates and needy civilians.