Why advocates are sounding the alarm on COVID-19 in Ontario prisons

The province didn’t release detailed information about correctional facilities and the coronavirus until mid-July — and legal and public-health experts say the data doesn’t provide a complete picture
By Monika Warzecha - Published on Jul 27, 2020
In April, eight staff members and 60 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 at the Ontario Correctional Institute, in Brampton. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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As COVID-19 cases edged up in the spring, the Ontario government announced emergency measures and released new numbers on positive cases. During daily press conferences, it shared information about testing, long-term-care homes, schools, and hospitals. But it provided few updates on provincially run correctional institutions. How were they handling the crisis? How many people were getting sick? Who was getting tested? Who was being released?

On April 20, the Toronto Star reported a major outbreak at the Ontario Correctional Institute, in Brampton: eight staff members and 60 of the 109 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus. The inmates were moved to the Toronto South Detention Centre, where they were kept in isolation for two weeks.

On July 7, a coalition of legal and health organizations wrote an open letter to Sylvia Jones, the province’s solicitor general, and Deborah Richardson, the deputy solicitor general, asking for more information on inmate releases, the gender and race breakdown of COVID-19 tests and cases, and the availability of personal protective equipment in Ontario’s correctional facilities. It also filed a freedom-of-information request for the data.

“This is a really scary place for people to be. The kind of anxiety that you or I feel if we're in a grocery store and someone comes too close to us or we're near someone and we forgot our mask — that's the kind of anxiety people are living with inside jails every day,” says Emily Hill, senior staff lawyer at Aboriginal Legal Services and a signatory of the letter. “They can't keep distance, they can't move away to make space, and they're not necessarily being given access to PPE.”

The province didn’t release detailed information about correctional facilities and the coronavirus until mid-July — even now, advocates say, there are important pieces missing.

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Data from the Province of Ontario; visualization by Monika Warzecha.

People in correctional facilities, like others in congregant settings, are vulnerable to the coronavirus as a result of close quarters and shared eating and sleeping facilities. The federal government releases data on coronavirus cases in federally run institutions, Ontario releases information about long-term-care homes, and Toronto releases data on cases in the shelter system. However, Ontario was “falling down” by not providing public-health information about what was happening in provincial correctional facilities, Hill says.

Abby Deshman, criminal-justice program director at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and one of the signatories of the letter, says the government has the information. “There have been briefing notes that have been sent to court actors, for example, detailing more information on the government's response in the correctional institutions. We know that our correctional system does track Indigeneity and race-based statistics. [That’s] just not being released to the public.”

Hill says she’s aware that information was released on cases in institutions and on testing within larger regions of Ontario on July 14. The information was updated on the province’s open-data site on July 22. 

“Before, there was absolutely no information, so I have to say it is better than nothing,” she says. “But it really only gives us a very slim picture of what is happening. It's like looking through a keyhole into the jail.”

Advocates say there are a number of issues with the information shared on the open-data site. 

“It looks more like a partial data dump than a really useful way to try and ensure transparency and accountability in the correctional system for a population that's very vulnerable,” Deshman says. “It's not a full list of correctional institutions. It doesn't include race-based statistics, and it's difficult to navigate.”

And, while some of the major outbreaks noted in the media, such as the one in the Brampton centre, occurred in April, the data goes only as far back as May 8.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Solicitor General tells TVO.org via email that that’s because, in May, “the ministry launched formal reporting on testing and cases. Prior to that, the ministry collected data in a different format, therefore the information requires validation before it can be made publicly available online.”

Positive cases in the Ontario Correctional Institute seemed to stay high mid-May. According to the government data, the total ongoing active-inmate cases, as of the reporting date, peaked at 76 cases on May 15 and May 19 before dropping down again.

Though the Ontario government did indicate on June 2 that it had reduced the province’s correctional population by about 31 per cent, the number applies generally across 25 institutions. The open letter asked for a “breakdown of the numbers of those serving sentences who have been released from custody since March 16, 2020, as well as data about the people who have entered the provincial correctional system, both on remand and those serving sentences, disaggregated by race and gender, since that date.” The letter also called for “the regular, online reporting of data disaggregated by race, gender, and correctional institution about testing and positive cases among staff and those in custody in Ontario.”

Currently, Indigenous and Black people are overrepresented in the correctional system. According to Statistics Canada, Indigenous men made up 11 per cent of admissions to provincial correctional facilities in 2017/2018, while Indigenous women made up 18 per cent. However, Indigenous people make up only 4 per cent of Ontario’s population. Research by Akwasi Owusu-Bempah indicates that Black people made up 3.9 percent of Ontario’s population in 2010/2011, but constituted 17.7 percent of admissions to Ontario’s correctional facilities that year.

The public letter also cites the 2018 Supreme Court case Ewert v. Canada, which found that Indigenous offenders “are more likely to receive higher security classifications, to spend more time in segregation, to serve more of their sentence behind bars before first release, to be under-represented in community supervision populations, and to return to prison on revocation of parole” relative to non-Indigenous offenders. A 2013 report from Canada’s Office of the Correctional Investigator found similar trends on the federal level for Black inmates.

That’s why legal and public-health advocates want to know who is getting released during the pandemic, who has been left inside, and who is testing positive, Hill says: they want to know whether the health emergency has exacerbated or reduced the issue of overrepresentation in prisons.

Right now, the data on coronavirus tests is broad: for example, it indicates how many tests were administered in the northern, central, eastern, western and Toronto regions but doesn’t provide details on each specific correctional facility.

According to the latest available data, the central region, which includes the Ontario Correctional Institute and four other facilities, had the highest number of coronavirus cases. The cumulative number of positive tests in the central region was 173 as of July 21; the northern region counted six, the eastern saw two, the western region three, and Toronto 18.

“Due to the large volume of tests and movement of inmates, the data is collected and organized by region at this time,” the spokesperson says. “We are continuously working to improve our manual tracking systems to ensure we provide accurate data in a timely manner.”

That raises other concerns, Hill says: “The northern region has seven facilities. But we don't know where the testing is taking place.” She cites existing worries about the Thunder Bay District Jail, a nearly century-old facility that has a history of overcrowding and violence. NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa called for the jail to be shut down after his nephew, Kevin Mamakwa, died there in June. Since 2002, nine men have died in custody. Seven of them, including Mamakawa, were Indigenous.

In its annual report, released in late June, the Office of the Ombudsman of Ontario said inmates had filed a record 6,000 complaints in 2019-2020, many of them related to issues such as overcrowding and a lack of access to medical care. 

The ombudsman’s team observed “disturbing, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions” at some facilities, including the Thunder Bay and Kenora jails. “Some facilities,” the report notes, “had three or even four inmates bunked in cells designed for two.”

“When we think about how things are happening in the Thunder Bay District Jail, I can't tell whether testing is being regularly done,” Hill says. “I can see that there's some testing being done in the northern region, but I can't tell where that's happening. So, for someone who has a loved one in the Thunder Bay District Jail, we have very little information to go on.”

Hill says that, within the Indigenous community her organization serves, there are also concerns about keeping family members safe when they come home. “I think that's really important to remember — that people who are inside institutions eventually leave. That's important to be paying attention to for all our health.”

Though the coalition hasn’t heard from the solicitor general or deputy solicitor general about its letter, it has gotten confirmation that the FOI request has been received.

“The situation isn't going to resolve soon. We're looking at months, if not years. Who knows when the vaccine will be developed or effective treatment will be developed?” Deshman says. “Despite the fact that the numbers of the infected people are down, which is really good, the situation in the correctional institutions is still deeply concerning, especially with the knowledge that we are being told to expect an uptick in infections in the coming months.”

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