As a registered nurse and prison health researcher, I believe COVID-19 requires us to think differently to immediately change our approach to prison health services. This will mean changes to the criminal justice system that are long overdue.
We have a choice: either double down on restriction and isolation of people in prisons, or we can lean heavily on compassion and care in this crisis. Instead of a lockdown to address the threat of chaos and death in carceral institutions, we must now make the ethical decision to reduce the imprisoned population..
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Dangerous, dysfunctional, expensive
In Canada, almost two-thirds of the nearly 40,000 people who are incarcerated on a given day are in provincial facilities. Of these, more than two-thirds are on remand: they are untried, unconvicted and unsentenced.
According to the most recent report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, prisons are dangerous, dysfunctional and expensive. Most women prisoners are living with untreated trauma from sexual or physical abuse, three-quarters have lived with mental illness, and two-thirds experience substance use disorders.
Rates of physical illness and injury among prisoners are extraordinarily high in comparison to those not in prison. Consider infectious disease: nearly a third of prisoners have hepatitis C, which exists in rates below one per cent in the community. Looking at physical and cognitive functioning, studies in Canada found half of male prisoners have a traumatic brain injury. Prisoners lack autonomy over their health care, hygiene or movement. And now they face a global pandemic.
Prisons across the country are banning in-person visits and access for volunteer organizations. In response to COVID-19, the Department of Justice in Nova Scotia announced provincial prisoners will be allowed non-contact visits and two free phone calls per week. Prisons should follow prudent public health practice regarding restricting social distancing, just as is standard advice in the wider community. But out in the community, we have cell phones, Internet and access to services. For prisoners, additional restrictions are unbearable and feel punitive.
While we lack data about the children of prisoners in Canada, it is generally understood that most prisoners are parents, and they will now be separated from their children in a terrifying time. One quarter of Canadian prisoners are over the age of 50, facing the very real threat of a lethal infection. Sean Gardner, a prison chaplain in the federal system, said via e-mail: “One guy told me ‘we are always the first to lose everything, we take it and we take it, but this better not last long because I will explode if I can’t see my family.’”
Prisons are stuck in a vicious cycle. Restrictions cause agitation, which in turn leads to more violence, and then more restrictions in response. Correctional staff already report untenable working conditions. Social distancing and self-isolation will force more and more staff to stay home. Without adequate staff to supervised the movement of prisoners between spaces inside and outside the prison, prisoners will be unable to receive health services.
Creative solutions are possible
The COVID-19 pandemic requires an urgent change in prisons. Rather than continued incarceration, we can opt for house arrest, promises to appear in court, phone check-ins and other creative solutions to decarcerate.
This is not a radical proposition. Many provincial prisoners are serving what are known as “intermittent” sentences; out in the community, they work Monday to Friday, and enter the jail only for the weekend. Temporary absences would allow these prisoners to go and stay home. Ontario has already announced this move.
Where safe housing is available, we can extend temporary absences for minimum security prisoners, people with health problems and prisoners over the age of 50. The Corrections and Conditional Release Act already allows for Indigenous people who are vastly over-incarcerated to return to their communities.
Read more: Broken system: Why is a quarter of Canada's prison population Indigenous?
Those left incarcerated should have unlimited abilities to call their families for free. Private telephone company profit should not be prioritized over the psychological and physical safety of prisoners in this critical time.
Everyone should have access to all the free sanitation products they need. “It’s available in canteen” is not adequate. Prisoners are poor. They rely heavily on people on the outside helping them financially; these people are burdened by the precarity of the current economic environment. As handwashing and sanitation are key to preventing the virus’ spread, free supplies are a public health imperative.
To prevent new admissions, court dockets can not only be suspended but cleared by dropping charges wherever possible. This should also apply to those held in immigration detention and under deportation orders.
Prisons do not make us safe
Prisons do not make our society safer. During a pandemic, they increase the risk of infection not only to prisoners but to correctional and health-care staff. By taking immediate steps to substantially decrease the prison population, we can decrease that risk.
This critical moment gives us an opportunity to rethink the punitive policies that got us here. COVID-19 has forced us to consider how we care for all. Prisoners are an often forgotten part of the public, and prisons are a public health disaster. Now is the time to decarcerate for good. Reducing the population behind bars is a first step to protecting prisoners from COVID-19, and supports creating alternatives to prison in the long term.