COVID-19 and the Crisis in Corrections

Professor Debra Parkes

Over the past months, the world has been vigorously battling the COVID-19 pandemic and this has led to changes in the way we live and work. One area that has sparked concerns, is the potential for the pandemic to spread through prisons across Canada, endangering prisoners and staff.

In an Op-Ed published in the Vancouver Sun on April 1, Professor Debra Parkes discussed the challenge of fighting COVID-19 in the prison context and the legal options for safely releasing prisoners. She forewarned that a mass COVID-19 outbreak was likely if necessary steps to depopulate prisons are not taken.

“The window on preventing mass outbreaks is closing… in moments of crises, many of the old rules and assumptions go out the window,” says Professor Parkes. “We see what is truly necessary and what is possible when our priorities shift. Reducing the number of people in prison is a public health and humanitarian imperative now.”

Her fears have been realized considering that there has been a growing increase in COVID-19 cases within prisons. As of May 13, there have been a recorded 120 positive COVID-19 cases affecting inmates at the Mission Medium Institution in BC.

Here, Professor Parkes discusses this ongoing public health threat and elaborates on what can be done to address it.

Describe for us why prisoners and those working in these facilities are at such a great risk during COVID-19.

Prisons pack large numbers of people into close quarters. In BC, for example, some prisoners are in double-bunked cells. Physical distancing as directed by public health officials becomes impossible in this environment. In addition, many prisoners have unaddressed physical and mental health needs, and the population of older prisoners who are particularly vulnerable to infection has grown in recent years. Tragically, we are seeing skyrocketing COVID-19 infection rates in a number of prisons, including at Mission Institution here in BC, and at least one death so far. Women’s prisons have also been particularly hard-hit by the virus; over half the population of the prison for women in Joliette, Quebec have tested positive.

In your view, how has Canada’s response been in regards to correctional facilities and COVID-19?

From the onset of the pandemic, there has been an urgent need to depopulate prisons and jails to prevent the spread of an outbreak. Some provinces, such as Nova Scotia and Ontario, have made significant coordinated efforts to decrease their in-custody numbers. However, we have seen only minimal steps taken at the federal level where there are over 14,000 people incarcerated on sentences of two years or more. There have been no meaningful institutional efforts to identify populations for early release (low security prisoners, pregnant women, older prisoners and those with chronic illnesses). And for the people who remain in prison, conditions have worsened. Prisoners are locked in their cells, gyms and libraries are closed, programs have been cancelled, and visitors banned.

What are some measures that can be put into place today to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities?

Depopulation efforts should be stepped up immediately, using a range of available legal tools through corrections and parole legislation. For example, there is a provision that allows for medical temporary absences from prison that has only recently been utilized, and only after a lawsuit was filed. Releases under parole legislation could be expedited. In the normal course, about 4,000 federal prisoners each are released once two-thirds of their sentence has been served, so-called statutory release. These people are going to be returning to the community soon, in any event, and could be brought before the Parole Board in a timely way. Speeding up these releases up by a few months could save lives. Research shows that few people released on parole are returned to prison for new offences. In the context of a pandemic, both public safety and public health are served when resources are allocated to support transition to the community from prison.

Could you tell us a bit about your area of research?

My research addresses the potential of prisoner rights litigation and other legal strategies to alleviate some of the harms of incarceration. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we are seeing incarcerated people and their advocates turning to the courts for a range of relief, including to compel timely parole decisions, release under temporary absence provisions, or freedom from unconstitutional conditions of confinement such as solitary confinement. Others are using class action proceedings to seek redress for the handling of the pandemic by correctional authorities to date. Unfortunately, many correctional laws and constitutional rights are not meaningfully enforced because legal aid is unavailable to incarcerated people in most provinces. This moment has produced renewed calls for independent oversight and accountability of imprisonment, including through the courts.