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Depopulate prisons before Omicron hits, Ottawa criminologist urges


“It’s not a surprise we’re facing outbreaks, and, at this stage of the pandemic, it’s unconscionable that we haven’t taken action to address the known sources of transmission.”

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The COVID-19 infection rate among Canada’s prison population was five times that of the general public before Omicron, according to research by an Ottawa criminologist who says the only way to prevent disaster now is to depopulate the prison system.

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“I’d say it’s already a disaster, but it could get much worse,” warned University of Ottawa professor Justin Piché, a member of the Prison Pandemic Partnership, an academic research group dedicated to tracking the impact of COVID-19 on the lives of Canada’s inmates.

Earlier this week, a COVID-19 outbreak at the Brockville jail forced the facility to close. Its inmates were transferred to a jail in Lindsay for testing and 14-day quarantines. New inmates bound for Brockville are now being sent to the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre for at least the next two weeks.

Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton, Ont., is also dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that has affected dozens of inmates.

In Windsor, the Southwest Detention Centre now faces the largest outbreak of the pandemic, while the Niagara Detention Centre has 31 inmates infected with COVID-19.

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Piché predicted more facilities will be hit with outbreaks in the coming weeks since they offer ideal conditions for the spread of Omicron: Social distancing is difficult, ventilation is often poor, health care is limited, and inmates are under-vaccinated.

“It’s not a surprise we’re facing outbreaks, and, at this stage of the pandemic, it’s unconscionable that we haven’t taken action to address the known sources of transmission,” he said.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, police, lawyers and judges acted in concert to reduce the pressure on the jail system, primarily through an increase in the number of people released on bail. Those serving weekend sentences were also granted more temporary absences.

The measures swiftly reduced the province’s prison population by about 30 per cent, Piché said, from 8,300 before the pandemic to 5,800. By the summer of 2020, the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre was half full.

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“It paid dividends from a public health perspective,” he said, noting that the first wave of COVID-19 inside the province’s jails was kept under control.

Dalhousie University law professor Adelina Iftene recently published a case study that examined Nova Scotia’s handling of the first wave of COVID-19 inside that province’s jails. The province rapidly depopulated its jails by 41 per cent early in the pandemic, the study found, and recorded only one COVID-19 infection during the first wave.

“It was quite shocking to see it depopulate so fast — and see that it could happen without any increase in the crime rate, without any danger to public safety,” Iftene said in an interview.

In recent months, the province’s inmate numbers have crept back up, Iftene said, adding: “I think there is a genuine concern we won’t be as lucky with this new variant.”

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Piché said Ontario jails have also refilled. By the beginning of December, he said, 7,400 people were back behind bars in the province. (Ontario’s inmate population remains 11.4 per cent lower than it was when the pandemic began, provincial figures show.)

“It seems that what was done in the first wave of the pandemic has been largely abandoned,” Piché said. “I think they need to ramp up both diversion and decarceration (releasing people from custody).”

Some inmates at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre are now three to a cell, according to inmates who have contacted the Jail Accountability and Information Line. The jail hotline is an initiative launched by criminology students and professors at Ottawa’s two universities.

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“I think the province needs to look at what it did in the first wave and get back to work,” Piché said.

The province appears to be going that route. A Dec. 3 memo from the Ministry of the Solicitor General says, in an attempt to reduce jail capacity, people serving intermittent sentences will again be given temporary absence passes. Officials are also reviewing inmate files to determine if some can be released early.

“Those who have been convicted of serious crimes, such as violent crimes or crimes involving guns, would not be considered for early release,” says the memo, obtained by this newspaper.

Personal visits have been suspended at all institutions in outbreak status, and the ministry has halted all non-essential inmate transfers, the memo says.

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Andrew Morrison, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, said all inmates are screened for COVID-19 when they’re admitted from police custody or transferred from another institution. Those who don’t pass the screening are put into medical isolation, while the others are sent to an intake unit for at least two weeks before joining the general population.

Prison outbreaks, Piché warned, do not just affect inmates. “COVID doesn’t stay behind the walls of a prison,” he said. “Staff go back to their homes and communities every evening: They shop in the same stores we do.”

According to data compiled by the Prison Pandemic Partnership, about 10,000 inmates and guards have contracted COVID-19 in Canada’s corrections system since the beginning of the pandemic. That translates into a COVID-19 rate of about 26 per cent, or about five times the 4.8 per cent infection rate in the general public, Piché said.

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At the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, 97 inmates and 13 staff members have contracted COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, government figures show.

Vaccine hesitancy may be playing a role in the pandemic behind prison walls.

According to information published by the Canadian Correctional Service, 81.7 per cent of inmates in federal prisons are fully vaccinated. Almost 87 per cent of the Canadian population over the age of 12 is fully vaccinated.

The vaccination rates tend to be considerably lower in maximum-security institutions. At Collins Bay Institution, for instance, a maximum-security facility in Kington, only 35.4 per cent of inmates are fully vaccinated. At the minimum-security Joyceville Institution in Kingston, more than 96 per cent of inmates are fully vaccinated.

The data also shows older inmates are more likely to be fully vaccinated than younger inmates, and that white (88.9 per cent) and Indigenous (88.4 per cent) inmates are more likely to be fully vaccinated than visible minority (75.4 per cent) inmates.

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