FILE – Patches are seen on the arm and shoulder of a corrections officer in the segregation unit at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women during a media tour, in Abbotsford, B.C., on Thursday October 26, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Canada’s prisons preparing for COVID-19, want public to limit visits

Experts and prisoner advocates have expressed concerns for the health of the highly vulnerable prisoner population

Canadian prison officials say they are adopting an existing flu-outbreak plan in preparation for the novel coronavirus outbreak that is sweeping across the country.

Correctional Service Canada says it wants the prisoners’ family and friends to avoid its institutions should they be sick and to consider other ways of communicating with loved ones, such as a video visitation or by telephone.

“CSC has considerable experience managing influenza outbreaks and the requirements for managing COVID-19 are similar,” spokeswoman Martine Rondeau said in an email to The Canadian Press.

Rondeau said there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in CSC institutions, but noted the service will comply “with requirements set by public health authorities, which could include an institution being quarantined.”

In Ontario, the provincial government announced late Friday it was barring personal visits to inmates in its adult provincial jails, allowing only professional visits, such as from prisoners’ lawyers. Offenders serving their sentences on weekends will also see their restrictions loosened.

Experts and prisoner advocates have expressed concerns for the health of the highly vulnerable prisoner population.

Martha Paynter, a nurse who also researches prisoner health as part of her doctoral studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said prisons and jails are “petri dishes” where disease spreads quickly and inmates can do little to isolate themselves for protection.

“People who are inside cannot easily get away from others, there is poor ventilation, little time outside and a lack of hygiene products,” she said. “It is considered contraband to have access to alcohol-based substances like hand sanitizer. They’re lucky to get a bar of soap. It’s terrifying.”

James Bloomfield, president of the Prairies region for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said the panic over COVID-19 has crept inside the institutions.

“It gets pretty complicated when you start housing hundreds of people together,” he said. “We’re at the stage now where we’re trying to look at all of our protective equipment, gloves, masks, making sure we’ve got enough of that type of stuff, disinfectants.”

He said the constant flow of visitors, workers and medical staff leave the institution vulnerable to infection.

“We can’t isolate everyone either,” he said from Winnipeg. ”We’ve got 800 people at Stony Mountain (Institution) for example and when you start trying to isolate, it’s impossible.”

“If it does get in we’re going to be bringing it home, the officers bringing it home to their families.”

READ MORE: Study says few workers have paid leave, qualify for EI if off job due to COVID-19

About a third of inmates in Canada are housed in federal institutions with the remainder in provincial jails, where those on sentences of two years less a day mix with those awaiting trial who are presumed innocent.

Toronto criminal defence lawyer Daniel Brown said it’s only a matter of time before an inmate contracts the virus. He’s worried for his clients.

“There’s no way the jails can address the health concerns raised by a pandemic — they don’t have the facilities, they don’t have the ability to self-isolate,” he said. “Jails are overcrowded and underfunded. The staff aren’t equipped to deal with a crisis like this.”

A spokeswoman for Ontario’s Ministry of Solicitor General that oversees the jails said no one has tested positive for COVID-19 in the province’s jails.

“If an outbreak of any communicable disease occurs or is suspected, institution officials take immediate precautionary measures in accordance with operating procedures, including notifying the local medical officer of health, and provincial health professionals,” said Kristy Denette.

“Inmates may be isolated if required, and medical attention and treatment is provided.”

Paynter said she was also worried about inmates’ mental health.

“This is also an anxiety epidemic,” she said, adding that inmate populations have high rates of mental health afflictions.

“People who are inside are not able to easily contact their families. They don’t’ have unlimited cellphone plans to call their mom and kid,” she said. ”That’s how we outside institutions are going to cope. We can cope with social distancing because of technology. It’s the opposite in jails or prisons.”

Deadly riots recently broke out in Italian prisons after visitors were banned while the country deals with a COVID-19 outbreak that has so far sickened over 17,000 people,including at least 1,266 deaths.

Liam Casey and Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Sylvan Lake’s Flags of Remembrance ceremonies cancelled due to pandemic

The flags will fly along the lake and Highway 11 under the name “Flags of Unity”, Sept. 12-Nov. 12

Virtual visits for Stettler Big Brothers Big Sisters youth and mentors

This year’s Awesome Auction, which was set for May, has been postponed

An update from the Stettler Regional Emergency Management Agency

SREMA recommends postponing or cancelling all gatherings until a later date

History book committee continues to need your help

Organizers are seeking local family stories, histories and photos

A Message From the Publisher – ‘We will do our best, but without local advertising revenue, The Stettler Independent cannot survive’

‘We will do our best, but without local advertising revenue, The Stettler Independent cannot survive’

Sylvan Lake plumbers ask for social distancing while working in homes

Fonda’s Plumbing and Heating says they went out to six service calls in one day during the outbreak

Wetaskiwin Food Banks are preparing for a surge in need due to COVID-19

Layoffs are expected to play a major role in need for the Food Bank.

Lacombe Rams football adapting to COVID-19 changes

Spring camp likely cancelled; players working on games from home

A message from Central Alberta Co-op

Please remember to practice social distancing at all our locations.

Town of Sylvan Lake temporally lays off 64 employees during COVID-19 pandemic

The Town has enacted a temporary 60-day layoff process for 64 employees

Trump says he expects Russia, Saudis to cut oil production

Energy prices haven’t been this low since 2002

Town of Blackfalds announces layoffs amid COVID-19 pandemic

Over 25 staff are being laid off or their contract terminated early

WATCH: Update from Prime Minister Trudeau

April 2 briefing from Ottawa

Most Read