Just how bad is the COVID-19 situation in Canadian prisons?

Man in prison, retrieved from Columbo Gazette

It’s easy for people to overlook the impact Covid-19 has on our prison system. Though many facilities are already isolated from the world, prisoners are arguably among the most vulnerable.

It is safe to say that the quality of life has suffered for most who are living inside the prison system. For example, some contributing factors to this could be a lack of proper diet and/or lack of social activity. On top of all this, the pandemic brought two major factors to the world: physical illness and mental illness. A global pandemic of both.

Over 19,400 Covid-19 cases in Canada have been linked to jails, prisons, and penitentiaries.

Several federal prisons reported repeated viral outbreaks of the virus during 2020. The testing positivity rate in prisons was 29% whereas the rate for the general population was only 6%.

Below is a pie graph indicating the severity of COVID-19 outbreaks in federally run correctional institutions across the country. You'll see that, for example, 14 institutions have so far reported 0 cases. That's approximately 25% of the federally run institutions in Canada. From there, 20 have reported between 1 and 50 cases, 13 have reported between 51-100, and so on.

The Impact of COVID on Inmates

Extensive restrictions were put in place such as limited to no visitations, isolation units, scheduled meal times, restricted outdoor privileges, restricted phone privileges, and cancelled educational and recreational activities. In many cases, these health restrictions were extended due to staff shortages. These lengthy isolation and lockdown periods were a main factor in the decline of inmates' mental and physical health.

Jennifer Kusch, 24, met Robert Caldwell six years into his 12-year prison sentence.

“They canceled physical visits for like, a year, like you could not get your body in that prison unless you were a CEO, guard, or supplier,” says Kusch when asked about visitation during COVID.

Jennifer Kusch

Kusch says she called Caldwell nearly every day during the first set of lockdowns, learning new details of what was going on in the prison with every call.

“He was like, you could see people dying. He said they would come carry out the body in the morning. And simple choices like saying, I don't want to go to medical yet because if I have COVID, I'll miss this month's food shipment. [This] led to people dying… One kid died in his sleep because he knew he was sick but he wanted to wait for a 'secure pack'. It's like your currency, like, he had debts to pay and he needed his [money] to come in. He died from COVID because he couldn't miss his shipment.”

Kusch explained that when vaccines finally became available to the inmates, it had already been some time. Many prisoners had fallen into the conspiracies surrounding vaccines.

"There's a ton of people in there who were like misinformed about vaccines. The misinformation just run runs rampant," she says, reiterating after that Caldwell got his dose as soon as he could.

Restrictions have since lifted significantly. That being said, staff shortages have remained an issue which for many mean there hasn't been that much change.

You can watch an extensive dive into the impact of COVID-19 on Canadian prisoners below.

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