Under pressure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within institutions, prisons and jails across Canada are facing calls to reduce overcrowding in spaces that weren't designed for physical distancing.
In Manitoba, no cases of the virus within correctional institutions have been announced, and all programs and in-person visits have been suspended. It's still unclear how many, if any, inmates could be released early as part of COVID-19 response plans, or what protocols are in place for the use of protective gear inside provincial jails.
The province previously committed to suspending intermittent sentences and said Manitoba already has power over release dates of inmates in its jails.
A Manitoba Justice spokeswoman didn't address a specific question about whether inmates have been released early due to the virus, instead issuing a statement: "We are managing inmate release dates as corrections has authority to do... We will not be releasing anyone that presents a significant risk to public safety prior to the completion of their sentence."
At Stony Mountain Institution, and all other federal prisons, those discussions are still underway with the Parole Board of Canada, said Sav Bains, regional director of health services for the Correctional Service of Canada.
"We're trying to show compassion for those that are the most vulnerable medically, and that have serious underlying health conditions. Parallel to that, we want to make sure our communities are safe as well." – Sav Bains, regional director of health services for the Correctional Service of Canada
"We're trying to show compassion for those that are the most vulnerable medically, and that have serious underlying health conditions. Parallel to that, we want to make sure our communities are safe as well, so that dialogue and conversation is taking place, and we'll get to a point when we can look at that, for sure," he said.
Meanwhile, a Stony Mountain inmate says tensions are building as inmates cope with increased restrictions.
Chris Hastings, who is serving a 10 1/2-year sentence for trafficking carfentanil within the prison, said inmates aren't being completely confined to cells and can still access the canteen, but they are concerned a full lockdown is coming.
The indoor gym is shuttered and inmates are not allowed to move between units. Hastings said social distancing is difficult, given all of the facilities are shared among inmates.
Hastings said extra cleaners have been hired, and as of Thursday, guards were beginning to wear protective equipment. Inmates don't have masks or hand sanitizer, and Hastings said he doesn't think they've been given enough information about how to protect themselves and others from the novel coronavirus, particularly for inmates with underlying health conditions.
"I've asked for information. I appreciate that it's a new thing and they don't know much about it; a lot of guys are freaked out. A lot of guys are stressed and worried about their families, worried about their own health," said Hastings, who is a member of an inmate wellness committee inside the prison north of Winnipeg.
"We're not trying to take advantage of this situation. We're concerned just as much as anybody else is.... I'm just worried that if these guys keep feeling the way they are, it could lead to bad stuff happening." – Chris Hastings, Stony Mountain inmate
"A lot of the guys just want people to know that we're not trying to take advantage of this situation. We're concerned just as much as anybody else is — everybody's being affected by this. And it's a prison, it doesn't take much for it to blow up. I'm just worried that if these guys keep feeling the way they are, it could lead to bad stuff happening."
As part of its pandemic response guidelines, the Manitoba Human Rights Commission recommended early release for vulnerable prisoners, including pregnant women, elderly people, and those with compromised immune systems. The guidelines were released this week, aimed at government departments, municipalities, health authorities and policy makers.
The commission is also recommending the release of non-violent offenders and anyone who doesn't pose a public-safety risk, suggesting more sentences could be served in the community instead of in jail, and correctional officers could be redeployed as probation officers working by telephone.
"We're really concerned that overcrowding and large populations in our Manitoba prisons is going to impact the ability for incarcerated folks to equitably practice those health directives, like social distancing, and protect their health, but also the health of those who work in those facilities," said Karen Sharma, the commission's acting executive director.
Manitoba Justice said the number of prisoners inside its jails (1,902) is within capacity.
"We have been successful in ensuring that we can physically distance and isolate inmates, as necessary, and have developed contingency plans in case someone in the system tests positive for COVID-19," a spokeswoman said in a statement.
"We're really concerned that overcrowding and large populations in our Manitoba prisons is going to impact the ability for incarcerated folks to equitably practice those health directives." – Karen Sharma, Manitoba Human Rights Commission
At both the provincial and federal levels, correctional facilities are taking steps to isolate new admissions.
Bains said all federal prisoners being transferred to a different institution are expected to be isolated for 14 days upon arrival. He said a screening process is in place for prison staff arriving for work, and said they have protective gear to wear when physical distancing isn't possible.
In Manitoba's provincial jails, it's unclear how personal protective equipment is being used or whether any testing for COVID-19 is being done. When asked for a copy of any policies or guidelines that have been implemented by Manitoba Justice for the use of protective gear within its correctional facilities, a department spokeswoman said no operational documents could be provided, "in the interest of security."
It's also unclear what level of testing or screening is being conducted for the virus among correctional workers or inmates inside provincial jails. The province has only said testing is not mandatory.
NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine, Justice critic for the Opposition, said she has heard from correctional workers and their family members that personal protective equipment is not being worn, and that employees haven't received training on how to deal with someone who may have contracted the virus. The Opposition wants the Progressive Conservative government to provide that training and start fast-tracking inmates who may be eligible for early release, provided they don't have the virus and have a safe place to go.
"Those, at the very beginning, are very, very immediate and simple steps that the government should be taking," Fontaine said.
At the federal level, seven tests for the virus inside Stony Mountain came back negative and one result was still pending as of Friday, according to Correctional Service of Canada data. Federal inmates who show symptoms are being tested.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
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Updated on Saturday, April 11, 2020 at 12:12 PM CDT: Formatting
5:17 PM: Update: CSC inmate testing data is current as of Friday, not as of Thursday as was previously reported.