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What you need to know about COVID-19 today
As the body count at the Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., rose to 13, it was fitting that the chief medical officer said her greatest concerns are about vulnerable populations who reside in “enclosed settings”. Long term care homes are already being referred to as “war zones”.
Yet much less prominence has been given to another group of “high risk individuals” identified by Theresa Tam – inmates of correctional facilities.
That may be about to change. On Sunday, Corrections Canada revealed two inmates at a maximum security facility in Quebec had tested positive for COVID-19 – the first prisoners in a federal institution to catch the virus (although nine employees had already received positive test results).
Fear about the rapid spread of coronavirus in prisons has provoked a global surge in dissent and violence. In Brazil, 1,000 prisoners escaped detention. Peru, Chile and Venezuela have all experienced riots, while 23 prisoners were killed in Columbia after violence erupted over what prisoners perceived were inadequate measures to protect them. In France, inmates refused to return to their cells and a facility in New Jersey has seen some prisoners go on hunger strike.
Plans by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to release 650 inmates from the infamous Rikers Island jail complex have been blasted by the city’s five district attorneys. The original idea was for 300 Rikers Island prisoners serving less than a year for non-violent felonies to be released.
Nobody jailed on domestic violence charges or sexual offences was to be set free. In the event, the number released was much higher and included prisoners the prosecutors deem a risk to public safety, including a number guilty of domestic violence.
The DAs objected in an open letter, calling the process “haphazard”, saying it created the impression that city jails were not capable of providing sufficient healthcare. “We believe this perception is wrong,” they said.
That opinion is not shared by Ross MacDonald, the chief physician at Rikers, who in a long and apparently unauthorized Twitter thread, said that the prison has seen positive cases of COVID among inmates rise from one to 200 in 12 days.
“It is possible that our efforts will stem this growth but as a physician, I must tell you it is unlikely,” he said. He called for the release of as many vulnerable prisoners as possible to prevent the “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes”.
Prison authorities all over the world are facing a volatile, often combustible, situation.
Canada is not immune to riots by a prison population already upset that all family visits have been cancelled. It remains unclear what the government’s position is on the release of low-risk prisoners.
A spokesperson for Bill Blair, the public safety minister, said he has asked the Correctional Service commissioner and the chair of the Parole Board to see if there are any measures that could facilitate the early release of “certain offenders”.
Ontario senator Kim Pate, a long time proponent of penal reform, says keeping people locked down in close confinement will provide conditions ripe for the virus to flourish and spread. She said the federal cabinet has the power to grant conditional pardons and immediate release for prisoners not deemed a threat to public safety.
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers takes a harder line, saying it is “irresponsible” to introduce potential threats into communities. The union press release points to the recent tragic case in Quebec where a sex worker was murdered by an inmate on day parole. “The release of a few inmates would not solve the potential spread of COVID in our facilities, it would only increase the risk for Canadians,” the union said.
The focus must be on changing routines in penal institutions, including respecting social distancing and self-isolation practises “to every extent possible”, it said.
Prison authorities all over the world are facing a volatile, often combustible, situation
Clearly, though, the capacity for self-isolation is limited for inmates who are double or triple-bunking.
Prison officers say that guidelines are changing daily – that inmates are being limited to their respective units and are being fed separately to stop cross contamination.
But conditions are so perfect for the virus to spread that outbreaks across the country would appear inevitable.
Already judges are hesitant about sending alleged offenders to jail – an Ontario judge cited the risk of coronavirus last week when he ordered a suspected cocaine dealer to be released from Maplehurst Detention Centre.
A common sense solution would be to introduce a de-incarceration plan that releases prisoners serving short sentences for non-violent crimes; those near the end of their sentences; and, those with underlying health conditions.
The alternative is sure to be turmoil in our jails and an eruption of sick prisoners, competing with law-abiding citizens for ventilators and intensive care beds.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020