COVID-19 hit federal prisons twice as hard in 2nd wave of pandemic, report says

COVID-19 has hit federal prisons twice as hard in the second wave of the pandemic compared to the first, according to a new report from Canada’s Correctional Investigator that recommends an inmate vaccination strategy to prevent more outbreaks behind bars.

In a report released Tuesday, Ivan Zinger noted there have been 880 infections between November 2020 and Feb. 1, 2021, up from 361 cases during the first wave of the pandemic.

The number of institutions reporting outbreaks also jumped, from six in the first wave to 13 in the second.

In all, about 10 per cent of the federal prison population has been infected with COVID-19, compared to just two per cent of Canada’s general population.

Zinger recommends that Correctional Service Canada “develop and immediately make public” its plans and priorities for a national inmate vaccination strategy. 

In January, the Liberal government announced that some elderly prisoners with health issues would be prioritized for vaccination, maintaining that the government has a “duty of care” to protect vulnerable inmates. The move was praised by advocates as a sound policy to protect prisoners and the public at large, but it came under fire from the opposition Conservatives, who called it “outrageous” that incarcerated criminals could receive vaccines before some seniors in long-term care homes, front-line health-care workers, first responders and correctional officers.

Vaccines for elderly inmates ‘important first step’

Zinger said the initial supply of vaccines allocated to date, which represents less than five per cent of the inmate population, is “an important first step in protecting the most vulnerable and those at highest risk of severe disease outcome behind bars.”

Though active cases are now down to about a dozen, Zinger said he’s concerned about the impact of ongoing restrictive measures and extended lockdowns on inmate physical and mental health. 

“The measures that have been adopted to contain or control active prison outbreaks — near total cellular isolation, fresh air exercise once every two or three days, 20 minutes of out-of-cell time every other day to shower or use the telephone — are exceptional and difficult,” he said.

“There can be little doubt that people inside prisons, like other congregate living settings, such as long-term care facilities, shelters or group residences, are significantly more vulnerable to transmission and spread of COVID-19. The difference is that prisons are enforced congregate settings where people are held in close proximity with one another.”

Two prisons with the highest number of Indigenous offenders — Saskatchewan Penitentiary and Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba — were hardest hit during the second wave of the pandemic, which Zinger blames partly on old physical infrastructure.

Push for ‘alternatives to incarceration’

Among his key recommendations, Zinger calls on Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to explore alternatives to incarceration and to “address the failings of Canada’s aging, antiquated and costly federal prisons.” 

“Beyond the impacts of COVID-19, a more rigorous, humane and cost-effective community-based approach to corrections is long overdue,” he wrote in his report. 

“With more than 3,800 cells sitting empty across the country (equivalent to seven average size penitentiaries), the timing is now to reallocate staff and resources to better support safe, timely and healthy community reintegration and to examine the gradual closing of some aging and antiquated penitentiaries.” 

Throughout the pandemic, prisoners advocates have called for the early release of offenders to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the confined and often crowded institutions. Zinger’s report noted that there have been 1,053 fewer admissions than releases during the pandemic, but said that is due to reductions in sentencing and admissions during the pandemic rather than a planned increase in the release of inmates.

Zinger recommends that CSC collaborate with the Parole Board of Canada on the early, prioritized release of elderly and medically compromised inmates who don’t pose a risk to society.   

Zinger’s report lists a number of complaints from inmates due to restrictions in place to prevent transmission of the virus, including the cancellation of visits, limited access to outdoor exercise and a slow return to services such as programs, gyms and libraries.

He recommends allowing access to programs in the community.

“In recognition of the undue hardship, unusual circumstances and extraordinary measures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic on the federal inmate population, I recommend that CSC develop and fund a plan that significantly shifts program access and delivery to the community rather than prison,” he said in the report.

“This approach is consistent with evidence-based research, which suggests that the same programs delivered in the community yield better outcomes than those delivered in prison.”

CSC says it’s following public health guidelines

CSC issued a statement saying it has followed public health guidelines and advice “every step of the way” to ensure the safety of employees, inmates and the public.

“These have been unprecedented times – not only for Canadians, but for organizations like CSC who continue to operate 24/7 during the pandemic. Managing the effects of this pandemic, considering that correctional institutions are congregate living environments, has required extraordinary measures,” the statement reads. 

“Our employees continue to show strength and dedication to keeping up with these measures and working tirelessly, as a team, to prevent and minimize the spread of this virus. Inmates continue to collaborate with staff in following the measures in place and contribute to the COVID-19 response by producing a significant quantity of masks and gowns.”

CSC has vaccinated about 600 older offenders prioritized by age and underlying medical conditions. It said it expects to to roll out the second phase of vaccinations in the spring. 

“In the meantime, considerable efforts have been made to closely follow, monitor and treat inmates with underlying medical conditions, which put them at greater risk for a more severe outcome if they contract the virus,” the statement reads.

Lockdown measures haven’t prevented outbreaks

Justin Piché, associate professor of criminology and director of the Carceral Studies Research Collective at the University of Ottawa, said prisoners have been exposed to “prolonged, torturous, and arguably unconstitutional segregation-like conditions under the guise of medical quarantines and isolation” during the pandemic, yet those measures did not stop outbreaks at several institutions.

“With a third wave potentially coming, the federal government needs to be doing all it can to contain COVID, not people,” he said. 

“They need to depopulate CSC penitentiaries while increasing housing and other community supports for criminalized people to the extent possible to limit the spread of COVID-19 behind bars and to spare people who will eventually return to community from the egregious violence of torturous segregation-like conditions.”

Piché said because of the heightened risks of contracting COVID-19 in the confined environment and the high number of prisoners with health issues, the government must move fast to vaccinate more inmates and staff to limit outbreaks and related infections in the community.