COVID-19 behind bars: Inmates and their families speak out

Institutions have introduced new measures to guard against the coronavirus — but inmates and their loved ones are raising concerns about “inhumane” conditions
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Apr 29, 2020
Joyceville Institution is a medium-security facility near Kingston. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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Shelley has been having panic attacks lately. R.B., Shelley’s son, is in prison in Quebec, and that’s been a constant source of torment for the Niagara resident since the COVID-19 crisis began. “Any parent is always concerned about their child’s welfare. But when you have a child who’s incarcerated, you never stop worrying about their mental health and their physical health,” says Shelley (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy). “My concern for him right now is tenfold greater.”

Families across Ontario are similarly struggling, forced to rely on what they say is sporadic and often unreliable information coming out of federal prisons during the coronavirus pandemic. “The fear and lack of information that these families have has really meant a great increase in our toll-free support line,” says Louise Leonardi, executive director of the Canadian Families and Corrections Network, an organization that helps inmates stay connected to their families and communities. “We know there are a lot of rumours out there and inaccurate information.” 

Leonardi points out that the Correctional Service of Canada keeps a daily record of testing at federal institutions. So far, the Grand Valley Institution for Women, in Kitchener, is the only federal prison in Ontario where inmates have tested positive. But that hasn’t quelled concerns. “Someone will tell a family member that they saw a guy coughing, and then they go into isolation, so people assume it’s a positive,” Leonardi says. “Or maybe they aren’t seeing testing at their loved one’s institution, so they get worried.”

Families are also worried about the measures institutions have introduced in response to the pandemic. R.B., who experiences mental-health issues, says that he’s been locked in his range for 23 hours a day — what he calls “extreme confinement.” The experience, he says, has given him an “acute anxiety crisis” and resulted in the raising of his medication dosages. ”We’ve had no cases of COVID-19, but they’ve cramped us together to make room for potential quarantine spaces,” R.B. says in a written statement he provided to Shelley. “These extreme limitations in movement in a medium-security prison are increasing mental health problems and leading to greater irritability and revolt. Just today, four inmates who are normally friends came to blows.”

R.B., who is in his thirties, references a 2015 study by the CSC that found that 29.5 per cent of newly admitted federal offenders were suffering from an anxiety disorder and that another 16.9 per cent suffered from mood disorders. “Will the CSC or Parole Board of Canada take into consideration our frustration and growing endangerment from extreme confinement?” he asks.

TVO.org put this question to the CSC and the PBC. The CSC said in an emailed statement that it “modified routines across the organization to reduce staffing levels within institutions and to ensure physical distancing measures” and that group programs and activities have been suspended. The PBC said that it has worked to “streamline” and modify some policies and processes — it has, for example, been conducting parole hearings via videoconference or teleconference — but that public safety remains the “paramount consideration” in all its decisions. 

Since mid-March, the Office of the Correctional Investigator — the ombudsman for federal inmates — has received almost 500 complaints, more than a quarter of which are COVID-related. In a report released last week, investigator Ivan Zinger wrote that, at the five federal institutions that have experienced or are currently experiencing outbreaks, the conditions for infected inmates “obviously violate universal human rights standards.” Zinger recommends that public-health officials immediately inspect all federal facilities to ensure that proper infection-prevention and -control procedures are in place and that the CSC “enhance” its public communications during the crisis. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated on April 25 that his government is looking into the matter

Maxine, a Hamilton resident whose 49-year-old husband is a federal inmate, says that she is losing sleep over the conditions he describes. “They have no hand sanitizer. They have no masks — they have absolutely nothing,” says Maxine (who asked that her real name be withheld). That, combined with the lack of space for physical distancing, is a recipe for disaster, she says: “I’m very concerned about my husband — even other inmates. They’re human beings. We don’t want to see one person get sick. If one person gets it, it will spread like wildfire.”

Christine (also not her real name), whose husband is incarcerated at Joyceville Institution, near Kingston, says that she is horrified by what she hears: “They keep them locked up in these little ranges by themselves. They’re not allowed to go out. They have one working shower in the range. Imagine 30 to 40 guys with one working shower. They’re filthy. It’s beyond stressful.”

The CSC tells TVO.org that efforts are being made to clean and sanitize prisons: “We have hygiene measures in place to prevent the spread of viruses, and also cleaning, disinfecting, and proper laundry, and waste disposal processes. CSC has enhanced cleaning protocols, including disinfecting common areas and high-contact surfaces.”

While Christine says she understands that incarcerated people are in prison “for a reason,” she argues that the conditions are inhumane. She says she spoke to TVO.org because it’s important to raise awareness of what inmates are going through during COVID-19. “I know my husband is really lucky to have me on the outside,” says Christine. “I feel terrible for the inmates who have nobody.”

Some inmates, however, are more supportive of the CSC’s response to the crisis. Frank Dorsey, 59, a federal inmate at Warkworth Institution, in Trent Hills, who sits on the prison’s inmate committee, says precautions seem to be working: “It’s changed the whole routine. There’s six units in the penitentiary — probably 115 or 120 inmates in each unit. They’ve isolated the units now. You used to be able to go to the gym with everybody. You used to go to the kitchen and eat. That’s all stopped now.”

Dorsey says he tries his best to physically distance, washes his hands as frequently as possible, and has even fashioned a mask out of an old bandana. But he recognizes that prisons are uniquely vulnerable to the coronavirus. “If somebody gets COVID-19, due to the fact that we’re so close together, it’s going to be a major outbreak,” says Dorsey.

In an effort to address that risk, the province has released thousands of inmates; federal public safety minister Bill Blair says that hundreds of Canada’s 14,000 federal inmates have become eligible for release over the past six weeks. Shelley knows that simply releasing inmates back into their communities will not resolve the issue. R.B., she says, has social supports he could rely on if he were released during the health crisis — but many don’t. “I’m not saying that criminals don’t deserve consequences. But the consequences that are happening now are much more punishing than rehabilitative, in my opinion.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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