COVID-19 highlights the inhumanity of Canada's prisons

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Carceral institutions are always sites of social inequality and injustice, racist and colonial oppression, class stratification, and state repression. Under conditions of COVID-19, the character of state capitalist systems has been magnified -- unequal access to resources, the withholding or failure to provide necessary services (like health care), the prioritization of state control over human needs and the brutality of labour markets (and unemployment). And COVID-19 has been particularly harshly felt in carceral sites in Canada, highlighting the inhumanity of those institutions, where adequate health-care resources are already absent and protective measures like physical distancing cannot be applied.

Prisoners have raised their concerns about the conditions they are experiencing and expressed their frustration, anger and fears over the health risks they face. Given the separation of prisoners from broader communities, and the repressive constraints and restrictions -- including lack of access to means of communication they endure -- it has been crucial to speak up outside. The current social context of physical distancing and no large gatherings poses new challenges for organizing. Prison justice, abolitionist and anti-police power activists have turned to some new ways to act in solidarity with prisoners outside of carceral sites. 

Crises in carceral institutions

Carceral institutions are already unhealthy, but the COVID-19 crisis has made situations inside Canada's carceral institutions even worse than they already were. Overall, the rate of COVID-19 infection for Canada is 0.18 per cent, but for federal prisoners is 2.4 per cent (an infection rate 13 times as large).

As of May 7, 2020, the Tracking the Politics of Criminalization in Canada Project reports 563 COVID-19 cases connected to carceral sites in Canada. These consist of 294 Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) Prisoners; 109 provincial/territorial prisoners; 105 CSC staff; 52 provincial/territorial staff; one Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) staff; and two contractors. These numbers are markedly up from April 20, when there were 352 COVID-19 cases linked to carceral institutions in Canada. 

On May 3, 2020, a prisoner at the Federal Training Centre multi-level unit in Laval died from complications related to COVID-19. This is the second COVID death after the death of the Mission Institution prisoner reported on April 16. Both sites are federal prisons.

It was only as late as April 26 that it was announced that a nurse would be present full time at Mission Institution, where more than 130 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and one prisoner had already died.

Many prisons in Canada moved to an extended lockdown, in which prisoners are confined in their cells all day, except for around 20 minutes. This has severe negative impacts on prisoners' mental and physical health. These lockdown conditions under COVID have been called out by Canada's prison ombudsperson, who identifies the measures as "extreme." The use of solitary confinement, as the lockdowns amount to, has been recognized as cruel and unusual punishment by Canadian courts and as torture by the United Nations.

On April 21, a prisoner who tested positive for COVID-19 at Joliette Institution, a federal women's prison in Quebec, filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against Correctional Service Canada over its response to the pandemic. The application for a lawsuit was filed at the Montreal Courthouse for plaintiff Joelle Beaulieu. The lawsuit is on behalf of all federal prisoners in Quebec who have been imprisoned since March 13. It argues that corrections officials acted too slowly in putting in place proper measures at the carceral institutions. Beaulieu's action seeks $100 per day for all federal prisoners since the pandemic was declared. It also seeks a $500 lump sum for those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

In British Columbia, 38 human rights and community advocacy organizations, including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Pivot Legal, and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, addressed a letter to B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth and Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, calling for a public inquiry into the death of the Mission prisoner and into the CSC handling of the outbreak. The letter's signatory groups claim that CSC did not implement proper safety measures, including distancing rules, and that even after the outbreak had prisoners eating meals together in common areas. The letter reads, in part:

"The public needs to know what happened at Mission Institution and how the incarcerated person who died was treated; a confidential investigation would not suffice. Amidst a global pandemic, we cannot continue to sit back and watch people die in prison from the ticking time bomb of COVID-19 spreading through these institutions."

The coalition says that Mission Institution failed to "provide necessary care such as harm reduction supplies, hygiene necessities, adequate space to implement physical distancing measures, and extended health care to limit the spread of the virus." They go further in suggesting that there is "strong reason" to believe that these omissions and failures contributed to the death of the prisoner from COVID-19.

The Mission Family Committee, a group that includes more than 30 families, has come together to support one another and share information about their imprisoned loved ones during the pandemic. They have raised serious concerns about the lack of information coming from Correctional Services Canada, including failures by officials to return phone calls or respond to emails. This includes from the regional commissioner and the warden.

On May 6, prisoners at the Bordeaux jail in Montreal started a hunger strike. Thirty-four prisoners and 20 guards there have been diagnosed with COVID-19. They have expressed the great difficulty that prisoners have in organizing inside and in getting their concerns raised more broadly outside.

Free them all caravans: innovating action under COVID-19

Under conditions of COVID-19, and the crises taking over prisons in Canada, prisoner solidarity groups have found innovative ways to raise awareness about the health threats facing prisoners and to call for humane, just and decent responses that take the health needs of prisoners seriously. Raising the message "Free them all for public health" (#freethemall4publichealth), prisoner rights activists have turned to vehicle caravans and noise actions. Honking car horns and sounding noisemakers at carceral institutions to let people inside know that people outside are thinking about them and care about their wellbeing, and to raise broader awareness about the disastrous health conditions prisoners are facing under COVID-19 outbreaks. They are pressing for safe, healthy release with social and community supports, such as housing and livable income supports. Those released deserve proper health and safety provisions, including possibilities for physical distancing and safe quarantine.

Noise caravan actions have happened at carceral sites across Canada. For over a month now weekly events have been held at sites including Burnside Jail in Halifax, Joliette Institution for Women, Rivière-des-Prairies provincial jail, Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, Toronto South Detention Centre, as well as Mission Institution, Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, Alouette Correctional Centre for Women and Surrey Pretrial. At the last Mission action, people inside hung banners saying, "Thank You" and "Help Us" outside their windows, while shouting and drumming along with the noise outside. People in Surrey Pretrial banged for most of an hour.


Prisoner justice activists are clear to stress throughout the colonial basis of carceral structures in Canada and the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous and Black people. Guards try to remove caravans from sites on the claim that they are private property, as happened at Mission (itself built on stolen land of the Stó:lō and Kwantlen First Nations).

In his own statement, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs highlights the ongoing colonial character of incarceration in Canada, which includes the over-criminalization and over-representation of Indigenous people:

"A public inquest is essential and the bare minimum to try and find justice from this injustice. We challenge the governments of B.C. and Canada to go further in fundamentally changing prison systems and their pandemic responses to prevent further deaths. Canadian prisons remain sites of colonial violence against over-represented Indigenous peoples, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been weaponized against those who are incarcerated."

Joining calls for release, lawyer Jesse Donovan, with First Peoples Law stresses:

"What Canada needs to do is cooperate with Indigenous governments in order to determine how these targeted releases should go forward. That indigenous people are actively involved in the process so that release takes place in a planned way."

"Free them all" organizers raise solidarity for all prisoners, including detained migrants, and call for the release and status for all.

Jeff Shantz is a longtime union member, currently with Local 5 of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators (FPSE, B.C. Federation of Labour). He is a founding organizer with Anti-Police Power Surrey ([email protected]), a grassroots community group in Surrey (Unceded Coast Salish territories). He teaches on corporate crime and community advocacy at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. His publications include Manufacturing Phobias: The Political Production of Fear in Theory and Practice (University of Toronto Press), and the Crisis and Resistance trilogy (Punctum Books).

Image: Andrea Leon/Unsplash

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