Hon. Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety
Hon. David Lametti, Minister of Justice
Hon. Catherine McKenna, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities
Hon. Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Families, Children, and Social Service
House of Commons
Open Letter: Depopulation of Federal Prisons
As we write this, we have been made aware of more than one federally incarcerated woman with a confirmed case of COVID-19, and several others with presumptive cases. We fear that these cases mark the beginning of a potential public health emergency. As an organization dedicated to advocating for federally incarcerated women, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) is concerned about the Correctional Service of Canada’s (CSC) preparedness to manage this outbreak and reduce the harm to people inside prisons.
We write to you to insist on immediate action and offer our collaboration, along with our network of over 20 local Elizabeth Fry Societies, in devising a plan to ensure that we are able to safely depopulate federal women’s prisons in Canada.
The time for bold, decisive, and life-saving action is now.
CSC health care is not equipped to treat prisoners who become ill with COVID-19: Long before this public health crisis, our Regional Advocates have reported on the substandard healthcare provided to women in federal prison. Moreover, the Office of the Correctional Investigator has consistently reported on a lack of adequate health care in federal prisons. A system that was already failing to meet the needs of the people in their care cannot reasonably claim that they can manage a public health crisis. Given the substandard access to healthcare and the potential for rapid spread within prisons, as prisoners become ill they will need to be transferred to hospitals, putting even greater pressure on an already strained health care system. This puts everyone at greater risk.
Women are not safer in prison: It is impossible to practice physical distancing in prison. This is particularly concerning as incarcerated people fall within the groups that Public Health have deemed to be at an increased risk of more severe outcomes; including: those who are aged 65 and over, those who have compromised immune systems; and those who have underlying medical conditions. We have already seen devastating examples in our long term care facilities about the impacts that an outbreak can have on a population that is older and / or has underlying health conditions when living in close quarters. Medical experts across Canada have continuously expressed concerns for the safety of prisoners and staff once COVID-19 enters the prisons, and now it has.
There are community release options for Federally incarcerated women: There are over 20 local Elizabeth Fry Societies across Canada who provide programming and support for criminalized women. Many of these locals already have housing options for women leaving prison and are working tirelessly to provide safe and supportive housing – but we can do more.
Our local Elizabeth Fry Societies are willing and ready to be part of the solution to depopulate prisons in partnership with the Canadian Government. With adequate support, we are confident that we can work with you to facilitate the release of many federally incarcerated women in Canada.
There are options already available to help facilitate these releases; including: the extension of unaccompanied temporary absences, the use of Section 81 and 84 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA), expedited hearings for suspension and revocation cases, and section 121(1.b) of the CCRA states that “parole may be granted at any time to an offender […] whose physical or mental health is likely to suffer serious damage if the offender continues to be held in confinement”. We urge you to use the tools that are at your disposal to depopulate now.
As an organization dedicated to prison abolition, we understand that prisons have never served to keep our communities safe or address harm. Especially now, we echo the calls from prisoners, families, legal professionals, health care workers, senators, advocates, organizers, unions, and other service providers to release as many people from prison as possible. We do not have the death penalty in Canada, but inaction on the part of the government during this critical time will effectively sentence some of our country’s most marginalized people to death.
Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies
Cc. Anne Kelly – Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada
Cc. Angela Connidis – Deputy Commissioner for Women, Correctional Service of Canada
Cc. Marie Claude Landry – Chief Commissioner – Canadian Human Rights Commission
Cc. Senator Kim Pate – Standing Committee on Human Rights (in prison)
Cc. Ivan Zinger – Correctional Investigator of Canada
Cc. Jennifer Oades – Chairperson of the Parole Board of Canada
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
OTTAWA, SUNDAY, MARCH 15, 2020- COVID-19 & Incarcerated Peoples.
We are currently in the midst of a global outbreak of COVID-19.
As an organization dedicated to advocating for federally incarcerated women, CAEFS is concerned about the Correctional Service of Canada’s (CSC) preparedness to manage this outbreak and reduce the harm to people inside.
While Public Health has indicated that risk is low for the general public, they have identified several groups who are at increased risk of more severe outcomes; these include those who:
These same groups are also prevalent within our federal prisons. In their most recent report, the Office of the Federal Investigator (OCI) noted that on 2017-18, 25.2% of the federally incarcerated population was 50 years of age and over. Previous OCI reports also remind us that is it “universally established that correctional facilities house a number of health-compromised and vulnerable individuals”. The report also addresses the rapid aging of prisoners, making the link between prisoners aged 50-55+ having comparative health risks and those who are 65+ living outside of prisons, due to the overrepresentation of chronic health issues and lack of access to adequate health care.
Furthermore, Public Health has identified the risk of COVID-19 may be increased for certain settings including, “large gatherings in enclosed spaces”. Canadian provincial prisons are chronically overcrowded and both federal and provincial prisons are places where people cannot practice social isolation in the same ways that people outside of prisons can, it is nearly impossible. That all incarcerated people are at increased risk for infection is especially concerning given the past reports we have received from women inside indicating ongoing challenges with accessing adequate health care and preventative health measures inside, including even the most basic of necessities such as soap.
CAEFS advocates that:
Section 121(1.b) of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act states that “parole may be granted at any time to an offender […] whose physical or mental health is likely to suffer serious damage if the offender continues to be held in confinement”. We urge correctional authorities to release as many prisoners as they can using the tools that are at their disposal in order to alleviate the potentially severe negative mental and physical health impacts that come from being incarcerated at a time of national and global health emergency.
It is the responsibility of the government of Canada to protect the people for whom incarceration heightens the urgency of the danger that they face from a global pandemic.
Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies