Prisoners need our help as healthcare deteriorates

A large, colourful mural hangs on a building.
An artwork created by Cree Métis artist Jerry Thistle hangs outside Holy Trinity, Trinity Square in downtown Toronto. A detail in the artwork shows a prisoner. Mr. Thistle made the painting in reference to his time volunteering with others on the front lines during the pandemic
 on February 1, 2021
The Rev. Leigh Kern

Surviving this pandemic is difficult, but can you imagine being locked into a white room a little larger than your cot, with no window, no phone, no Internet and no running water for 23 hours a day? Many of us would probably want mental health support after only an hour, yet these are the conditions of extreme confinement and isolation that prisoners cope with for days on end. A prisoner from the Toronto East Detention Centre made the following public statement on Jan. 4 through the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project: “We are being deprived of our most important rights and liberties at the Toronto East Detention Centre. COVID-19 restrictions and overall staff negligence are becoming too much to handle for the inmate population. We haven’t received clean clothes in over three weeks. We don’t receive proper cleaning supplies or disinfectant or gloves for PPE – nothing. I speak on the behalf of the inmate population that we desperately seek intervention.”

Over the holidays, we received many calls from our community members currently incarcerated in Ontario’s prisons and jails describing their experience during COVID-19. Currently, there are active outbreaks at all primary prisons across the province. As many readers are aware, we have been advocating for the human rights of prisoners, calling for a change to the negligence of care for their physical well-being and a lack of healthcare that often exacerbates treatable and manageable conditions. During the pandemic, these conditions have become much, much worse and we see a system reeling as it tries to implement basic public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

From our conversation with prisoners, one of the first prisons to see the outbreak was OCI (Ontario Correctional Institute) in the mid-spring of 2020. This is a prison that is primarily focused on mental health and substance use rehabilitation, where many go to take programs that would divert them from longer sentences. One of the main vectors of disease in the prison system are the staff and security officers who move between the prison environment and the community. Soon after the beginning of COVID-19, all prisons implemented lockdown measures that disallowed family and community support from visiting the inmates. In spite of this measure, there was a large outbreak that began at this prison facility. The remedy for this outbreak was to augment OCI’s population by sending its prisoners to other regional prisons. This then led to the outbreak being spread across several institutions, with one of the hardest hit being the Toronto South Detention Centre. To mitigate the further spread of the virus within this facility, the administration instituted lockdown procedures (meaning that prisoners are locked in their cell for an extended duration), and discontinued programs and essential services. For prisoners, this has meant that they have had no access to laundry, cleaning products, running water or personal protective equipment. Even more challenging, during this time of great upheaval and anxiety, all typical connections to families and supports have been taken away, replaced with a courtesy phone card that allows for about two 15-minute phone calls per day to a landline. In Canada’s prisons, the deplorable conditions and response to the pandemic are only mounting, and little is being done to remedy this accelerating crisis.

These same conditions are also mirrored at the federal level, where prisoners serve sentences greater than two years. We received a call on New Year’s Eve from a prisoner who is a health organizer, who had just been let out of lockdown after more than a month of being confined to a unit. The inmate indicated that all federal prisons in Ontario now have outbreaks. This spread was caused by the shipping of COVID-19-positive people from the intake unit at Joyceville prison in Kingston to other institutions across the province in mid-December. This was done to clear space for intakes from provincial prisons. At the time of the transfers, staff knew there was an outbreak at Joyceville greater than 30 people, and their response was to ship people to other institutions to make more room for the intake.

Now, with massive and uncontrolled outbreaks in provincial prisons, this will quickly overwhelm the federal jails, which are often located in smaller communities with less health infrastructure. There is not adequate access to healthcare in the prison system, with shared sanitation, lack of ventilators, at most two infectious disease nurses at each institution, and very little isolation space.

In December alone, more than 1,400 prisoners in Canada contracted COVID-19 in prison. In demonstration for their health rights, prisoners have led a hunger strike campaign, and have invited you to join them by abstaining for food for one day and lifting up their calls for dignity and healthcare to your Member of Parliament. This is an issue that we can all lend our voices to, even in ways that seem small. Prisoners are members of our families, communities and the Body of Christ. They are not disposable.


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