How B.C’s Prisons Are Being Impacted by COVID-19

Prisoners are at a high risk of being exposed to the virus

(Kristen Frier)

As prisons in B.C. cancel support programs and struggle to meet social distancing requirements during the pandemic, the risk of inmates catching COVID-19 grows higher.

Correctional Service Canada (CSC)’s COVID-19 Preparedness and Plans state that they are enhancing cleaning practices at all federal prisons. They are also educating staff and inmates about COVID-19 prevention.

However, some feel that further measures should be taken. Alana Abramson is a KPU Criminology instructor who says that there are too many people in prison who shouldn’t be incarcerated. Abramson says CSC could look at decarceration as a way to minimize COVID-19 cases while letting inmates reintegrate into society.

In B.C’s federal correctional institutions, 121 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Another 278 have tested negative. There are two pending tests and 17 inconclusive tests.

In total, there has been one death and 120 recovered cases among inmates.

In the federal system, if a prisoner is doing time in a maximum-security prison but later proves to be low-risk, they are transferred to a lower-level security prison.

“None of those transfers from what I understand are happening right now … which means that people are staying at higher security longer, so that’s a problem,” says Abramson.

She says CSC programs for prisoners like Alcoholics Anonymous, Alternative to Violence, and spiritual support programs have been temporarily limited due to the pandemic.

Federal prisons have also stopped allowing escorted temporary absences. These are absences where inmates leave the institution for a short amount of time accompanied by one or more escorts. Abramson says inmates use this free time to do community service, go to therapy, and occasionally visit friends and family members.

“All of those have been eliminated as well,” she says. “Essentially what you have is people being warehoused in prison, which is exactly what we know doesn’t work … so a lot of us who are studying in this field are calling for decarceration.”

Corrections Canada has implemented Video Visitation, a video communication initiative where inmates can communicate with their family and friends.

“I think that was a positive thing because community support, family support is very important for prisoners, particularly in this stressful time,” says Abramson.

An affidavit written by Canadian public health and medical expert Dr. Aaron Orkin also encourages prisons to reduce the population of their inmates during the pandemic. Section 28 of the affidavit states that “insufficient social distancing in prisons is hazardous to the health of people experiencing imprisonment.”

“Therefore, reducing the population of individuals who are in good health in correctional facilities is important to protect the health of those who have health problems in those facilities,” it reads.

The COVID-19 Preparedness and Plans document states that the CSC is hiring additional health professionals to deliver essential health services. It will also be expanding access to healthcare for inmates to meet their essential health care needs.

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