The Canadian judicial system is taking action in dealing with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic within the national prison system. However, advocacy groups are calling on the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to take more serious measures in preventing the spread of the virus among inmates.
In mid-April, it was reported by the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO-SACC-CSN) and local media outlets that eight inmates at Kitchener’s Grand Valley Institution (GVI), the largest women’s prison in Canada, had tested positive for COVID-19. At the time of this discovery, GVI was the only prison in the country with any COVID-19 cases. The first case of the virus was confirmed on March 31.
In a statement made by CSC, all inmates who have contracted the virus have now fully recovered. The statement confirmed that three employees of GVI had also tested positive for COVID-19. One employee has fully recovered, and the following two are self-isolating in their homes.
All employees and inmates at GVI have been given masks to wear as a preventative measure, according to CSC. They are actively screening employees prior to entering the prison, as well as presenting an ongoing prevention education and awareness of COVID-19. Multiple hygiene measures are in place across their Canadian correctional facilities, including the cleaning and disinfecting of high-contact surfaces, laundry and waste disposal processes.
“We communicate regularly with employees, offenders and our partners to raise awareness of COVID-19 and prevention measures in place,” the statement given by CSC read.
GVI has suspended all visits to inmates and temporary absences, work releases for offerings (unless medically necessary), and all transfers of inmates. Reduced staffing levels to ensure physical distancing have also been in place within the prisons, and group education programs have been temporarily suspended.
According to CSC, health services are on-site within the prisons to care for inmates, and they are actively monitoring inmates and working with health officials to treat any cases as needed. As of early May, there have been 85 tests overseen in the prison, with 77 coming back negative. No tests are currently pending.
“CSC is committed to protecting the safety of staff, inmates, and the public in all of our operations. To date, there are no active COVID-19 cases among inmates in the Ontario, Atlantic or Prairie regions,” the statement read.
New policies continue to develop for inmates and employees, yet prison advocacy groups, such as the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies of Waterloo Region (CAEFS), have urged the Canadian judicial system to take crucial actions to protect the health and safety of their inmates.
The self-governing association works with and on behalf of women and girls within the justice system and those in danger of becoming criminalized. There are now 24 member societies of the CAEFS within Canada that work to monitor the conditions of confinement and advocate any human rights abuses within the women’s prison system in Canada.
The association’s regional advocate teams visit GVI on a monthly basis to meet with inmates (who also act as peer advocates) to bring awareness to issues surrounding the prison. However, with the outbreak of COVID-19 within GVI, the prison has suspended all non-essential visits in order to prevent the spread of the virus within the facility.
Emilie Coyle, executive director at the CAEFS, explained that while their advocates are currently unable to visit the prison, the group still communicates with inmates through their regional and national toll-free number. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the association was experiencing an increase of calls from inmates at GVI, as well as prisoners from across the country.
“[Inmates] can call and let us know what is happening in the prisons, and we can bring their concerns to the warden or to the national headquarters [CSC],” Coyle said.
“We heard a lot from the women inside who were very afraid, wondering how they could get out, and many of the women in prison have underlying health conditions, and that meant that COVID-19 entering the prison was very scary for them.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CAEFS began arranging weekly phone calls with the wardens and senior management of the prisons to discuss any issues with inmates, as well as staying in contact with CSC. The prison wardens were also asked to schedule calls with advocates inside the prisons in an effort to understand the inmates’ concerns.
More measures have been put in place to protect those within the Canadian prison system — Coyle explained that more needs to be done in order to permanently prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the prison once again. The CAEFS has called for the substantial decrease of the prison population during the time of the pandemic, yet GVI has not granted this request.
“The reason we’ve been calling for […] the depopulation of the prisons, is because it’s been proven time and time again that where you have people that are locked together in spaces […] they can’t possibly physically distance,” Coyle said. “This has been demonstrated around the world that once COVID-19 comes in, it’s virtually impossible to contain it.”
While Coyle said their association is relieved the inmates who were diagnosed with the virus have now recovered, she notes that the prisons need to remember that the long term effects of COVID-19 are still unknown. She also noted that there is a chance of a second wave hitting the prison and their inmates.
“It’s really important that we understand there will be a second wave and so I think it’s incumbent of CSC to take this time to really put in a robust plan to get as many women out of the prison as possible,” she said.