We urge you to take action. We need to protect the health and lives of prisoners because it is a legal obligation, protects public health, enhances community safety, and is the right thing to do. Contain Covid Not People!
Read it below:
Dear Premier Ford, Minister Jones, Minister Downey, Associate Chair Chapelle, and provincial officials:
We the undersigned are researchers, advocates, service providers and legal professionals concerned with the COVID-19 outbreaks that continue to batter Ontario provincial jails and prisons. This past month alone, large outbreaks have occurred in both the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre and Thunder Bay Jail, the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London, the Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton and the Toronto South Detention Centre. There have been smaller outbreaks in other provincial jails and prisons in Ontario as well. According to the Prison Pandemic Partnership, at least 564 prisoners, 141 staff members and one contractor in Ontario’s provincial jail system have been infected with COVID-19 during this crisis. The active cases on 29 January 2021 linked to Ontario’s jails included 207 prisoners and 101 prison staff members. The situation has become so dire that some jails are now re-routing admissions to other jails like the notorious Toronto South Detention Centre, which had a major COVID-19 outbreak last month. Prisoners’ families and frontline advocates believe there are many more cases in sites of human caging in Ontario that are going undetected or being kept secret.
We are also very concerned about the lack of PPE and supplies provided to prisoners to protect themselves from infection. Also of great concern are the lengthy, torturous lockdowns that are put in place when outbreaks occur, subjecting prisoners to segregation-like conditions for weeks and sometimes even months at a time with little access to phone calls or to basic amenities such as daily showering, regular laundry runs, and yard time.
The dangers of COVID-19 in prisons are abundantly clear, yet there are many necessary fundamental changes in protocol or transparency that have not taken place. Meaningful and effective action is needed to reverse this trend before more prisoners and prison staff in Ontario lose their lives. Facing a heightened risk of COVID-19 transmission and a barrage of draconian, psychologically harmful measures enacted in the name of public health, Ontario provincial prisoners, supported by their families and advocates, are renewing calls for the Government of Ontario to:
- Expand the use of measures to depopulate provincial jails and prisons to the greatest extent possible by working with legal system partners to increase the use of diversion measures (e.g. police releases of accused on their own recognizance, bail releases, conditional discharges, community-based sentences, etc.) and decarceration measures (e.g. temporary absences, parole, etc.);
- Divest from prison construction, and invest immediately in more short- and long-term housing (e.g. isolation hotels, modular housing, supportive and permanent housing, etc.) and other community supports (e.g. transportation, harm reduction, food, employment and income supports, etc.) to support diversion and decarceration from custody to enhance public health and safety;
- Immediately provide daily access to PPE, hygiene products and cleaning supplies to prisoners to help prevent the spread of COVID-19;
- Immediately implement and enforce mandatory masking and PPE compliance for all prison staff;
- Enhance COVID-19 detection and transparency through regular onsite COVID-19 testing for prisoners and staff;
- Release weekly information notes for each Ontario jail and prison updating prisoners, their loved ones, staff, community service providers and the public with transparent aggregate and non-aggregate data on testing: cases, admissions and releases, lockdowns, average daily counts, and vaccinations, as well as information about evolving COVID-19 protocols and other pertinent facts regarding the impact of the coronavirus on carceral institutions;
- End lockdowns and segregation-like conditions when COVID-19 outbreaks are suspected or detected, and implement effective, humane, and transparent public health measures to limit its spread (e.g. compassionate releases and placing infected prisoners on separate ranges where they can access appropriate medical care, food and supplies, and time out of cell to access yard, phone calls and virtual visits, and programs) inside all Ontario jails and prisons;
- End the second-tier health care system for Ontario prisoners and ensure continuity of care between the community and carceral institutions through the transfer of prisoner health care from the Ministry of the Solicitor General to the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care to enhance prisoner and public health during and beyond the pandemic;
- Prioritize prisoners and front-line staff for vaccination, starting with older adults, people with chronic health conditions, and those who are immunocompromised who are at significant risk of serious health complications or death should they contract COVID-19;
- Provide concrete timelines for vaccination and clear criteria for how groups will be prioritized and selected to ensure vaccination transparency and accountability;
- Immediately institute COVID-19 time credits for pre-trial prisoners to be considered at sentencing and for sentenced prisoners to be considered as part of conditional release decisions in recognition of the additional harms of imprisonment they have endured as a result of infections and/or pandemic measures; and
- Immediately launch an independent inquiry into the (mis)management of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario’s jail and prison system in order to promote the observance of human rights behind bars, and to end flawed practices and implement evidence based responses inside provincial carceral institutions in the months ahead.
We urge you to take the actions above to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Ontario’s provincial jails and prisons that improve conditions of confinement, uphold human dignity, and promote timely reintegration and community safety. We need to protect the health and lives of prisoners because it is a legal obligation, protects public health, enhances community safety, and is the right thing to do.