COVID-19 lockdowns violate federal inmate rights, suit alleges

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TORONTO — Federal prison authorities have repeatedly violated the rights of inmates with efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, a civil lawsuit alleges.

The unproven claim, filed in British Columbia Supreme Court, alleges anti-pandemic measures have resulted in a wide variety of breaches by Correctional Service of Canada.

"Without notice or explanation, it subjected incarcerated persons to medical and administrative lockdowns — a form of isolation akin to solitary confinement — for indeterminate periods of time," the suit alleges.

"It suspended parole hearings and withheld the programs and services that incarcerated persons require in order to secure parole eligibility."

Other alleged breaches, according to the claim, relate to the suspension of visits and religious services, as well as to the provision of substandard health-care.

The claim was filed by a prisoner rights group, the John Howard Society, and seven inmates. Several of them have serious health conditions.

Prisoners, much like residents of nursing homes, are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the potentially lethal virus, the suit states. That's especially true given the high proportion of older inmates and for those with underlying health problems.

Inmates are often housed in close quarters and guards and other staff move around inside prisons as well as in and out of the facilities. At the same time, prisoners have limited access to protective gear or other ways to mitigate the threat of infection, the suite says.

"The risks of a COVID-19 outbreak in penitentiaries are heightened as a result of the limited freedom and and reduced ability to practise social distancing," the claim says.

To date, Correctional Service of Canada has reported more than 1,400 cases of COVID-19 among inmates. Five have succumbed. The prison ombudsman has estimated that roughly 10 per cent of inmates have been infected, far higher than the two per cent infection rate among Canada's general population.

Authorities have reacted, the suit claims, by repeatedly locking down inmates, often for long periods, without notice or indication as to when the situation would end. That means no social contact or outdoor activities, or even showers, it claims.

"Lockdowns are tantamount to solitary confinement," the claim states.

In some cases, according to the filing, inmates have been kept locked down for more than 15 days in a row — a threshold widely condemned as inhumane. Numerous studies have shown prolonged segregation can take a devastating toll on mental health.

At the same time, authorities have limited access to parole or programs that might lead to release and otherwise mitigate the danger COVID-19 poses behind bars, the suit alleges.

The unproven suit also alleges that testing for the virus has been inadequate and basic health-care services have been lacking. Black, Indigenous and other marginalized inmates have been particularly hurt by the anti-pandemic measures, the claim states

The claim calls on the court to find that prison authorities have breached the rights of inmates by, among other things, failing to find reasonable alternatives to lockdowns. It wants the court to bar any lockdowns longer than 15 days or that total more than 15 days in any 30-day period.

The court should also order authorities to provide inmates with proper safety gear to prevent infections and resume parole-related activities, the suit asks. Those at high risk from COVID should be transferred to safer facilities or released, the suit asks.

"A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, CSC continues to fail to mitigate the effects of the pandemic in prisons," said Charlotte-Anne Malischewski, one of the lawyers for the claimants. "The status quo is unacceptable. It breaches fundamental human rights and puts everyone in prisons at risk."

Correctional Service of Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2021.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press