'The public needs to know': Calls for inquest into COVID-19 death at B.C. prison

Dozens of human rights groups, legal organizations and advocacy groups are calling for a coroner's inquest into the death of an inmate at Mission Institution, the federal prison in B.C.'s Fraser Valley that's home to the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Canada's correctional system.

The coalition of 38 organizations sent a letter to B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth and Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe this week pushing for an "immediate inquest" into the man's death. The inmate succumbed to complications from his COVID-19 infection on April 15 at Abbotsford Regional Hospital.

"The public needs to know what happened at Mission Institution and how the incarcerated person who died was treated; a confidential investigation would not suffice," reads the letter, which was signed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. Assembly of First Nations and the Law Union of British Columbia, among many other groups.

"Amidst a global pandemic, we cannot continue to sit back and watch people die in prison from the ticking time bomb of COVID-19 spreading through these institutions."

There have been major concerns about how the outbreak at Mission Institution has been handled, and what precautionary measures were in place for the protection of the inmate population prior to the virus infiltrating the facility.

Unions representing staff at the medium-security prison told CTV News it took weeks for safety measures to be implemented. While most B.C. residents were physical distancing from each other beginning the week of March 16, inmates continued to use communal areas like the prison gym and TV room until April 2.

There were also issues supplying personal protective equipment to staff that dragged on and resulted in workers using the same mask for two days at a time.

The first two cases of COVID-19 were announced at the prison on April 4, and the outbreak has since exploded to 132 confirmed infections. That includes 120 inmates, or about 40 per cent of the current prisoner population of 296.

The coalition said the institution failed to "provide necessary care such as harm reduction supplies, hygiene necessities, adequate space to implement physical distancing measures, and extended health care to limit the spread of the virus," and that there is "strong reason" to believe that contributed to the unnamed inmate's death from COVID-19.

The groups also noted that these issues disproportionately impact Indigenous people.

In January, Canada's prison ombudsman reported that Indigenous people make up 30 per cent of the federal prison population, despite accounting for only five per cent of the population of Canada.

"A public inquest is essential and the bare minimum to try and find justice from this injustice. We challenge the governments of B.C. and Canada to go further in fundamentally changing prison systems and their pandemic responses to prevent further deaths," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said in a statement. "Canadian prisons remain sites of colonial violence against over-represented Indigenous peoples, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been weaponized against those who are incarcerated."

The B.C. Coroners Service said Chief Coroner Lapointe "will be corresponding" with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association on the coalition's request. A spokesperson said that "decisions with respect to inquests are made by the chief coroner on the recommendation of the investigating coroner once their investigation is complete."

Correctional Service Canada told CTV News it takes the inmate's death very seriously, and is in the process of conducting its own "quality of care" review.

"Circumstances of the death will determine if the coroner or medical examiner will investigate. CSC is committed to working collaboratively with the coroner or medical investigator during their investigations," a spokesperson said in an email statement.

Over the weekend, correctional officials released an update on their efforts to contain the outbreak at Mission Institution, announcing that every inmate had been tested and that those who were confirmed to be carrying COVID-19 had been isolated to prevent further spread.

Masks are being given to all prisoners and staff, officials said, and hand washing stations have been set up throughout the prison.

The CSC also said it had expanded health-care capacity within the facility, with nursing staff on hand 24 hours a day and "physician coverage" seven days a week.

Coroner's inquests are set up to determine the facts surrounding a death, and not to find fault, though the jury can come back with recommendations aimed at preventing similar situations from happening the future.

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