Seven current and former inmates in British Columbia, along with prisoner advocacy organization the John Howard Society, have filed a constitutional challenge in B.C. Supreme Court.
In a notice of civil claim, the inmates say the Correctional Service of Canada and the attorney general of Canada have failed to provide them with basic rights during the pandemic and failed to adequately protect them against COVID-19.
The group says the restrictions and conditions they have endured during the pandemic — which they say include extended lockdowns, suspended parole hearings, inadequate health care and withholding visitation and religious services — have infringed on their rights.
The Correctional Service of Canada has yet to file a counter claim.
In a written statement, the service said the health and safety of its employees, offenders and the public continue to be its top priority.
"We continue to implement the rigorous health measures we've implemented in order to mitigate the spread of the virus," the statement said.
'Cruel and degrading'
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, says many people have been worried about how prisoners have been treated during the pandemic.
"The UN would describe the conditions in which vast numbers of federal prisoners were detained during this period as cruel and degrading, inhumane and torture," Latimer said.
"Not even a global pandemic can justify the way in which prisoners' rights have been eroded or ignored during this period."
The correctional service's main tactic for containing COVID-19 appears to be putting prisoners in isolation, Latimer says, with little access to the outdoors or other inmates.
Prisoners and their advocates say doing so for long periods of time is detrimental to their physical and mental health.
Other complaints mentioned in the notice of civil claim include withholding services like educational or substance abuse programs that prisoners need to secure parole eligibility, inadequate training for staff on how to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, inadequate sanitization and a lack of access to cleaning supplies.
The group is seeking injunctions to prevent any further charter violations during the pandemic, including restoring paused programs and services, limiting the use of lockdowns, and increasing access to personal protective equipment, among other actions.
Latimer says the John Howard Society has advocated for correctional institutions to release prisoners as much as possible, especially those who may be vulnerable to infection or severe complications, but little has been done.
She hopes the correctional service will find better solutions to keeping COVID-19 at bay.
But the CSC says it has put infection prevention measures in place. These include mandatory masks for inmates and staff, physical distancing measures, screening for people entering its institutions and increased cleaning and disinfection.
10% of prisoners infected
A recent status update from the Office of the Correctional Investigator says just over 10 per cent of prisoners have contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic, compared to about two per cent of the general population in Canada. During that period, four inmates have died from COVID-19.
The update also says the number of inmates in custody in federal institutions has dropped by 10.5 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic — the lowest count for the past decade.
During the pandemic, the office has received nearly 500 complaints or inquiries from inmates regarding COVID-19.
The CSC says it has provided 1,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine to 600 offenders across the country as part of its additional measures to limit the spread of the virus.
It says it will offer more vaccines in consultation with public health partners and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.