A federal inmate at the Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia says despite some changes the prison has made to curb the possible spread of COVID-19, the virus would wreak havoc on the prison's population due to how closely people continue to interact.
Adam Zinger, 36, is in his final months of his sentence. Originally from Alberta, he said in an interview with CBC News that "all day, every day," he's within a metre of fellow inmates and can't avoid it in situations such as placing a phone call, making a meal or going outside for some fresh air.
"The way they're treating it out in the world is not how they're treating it in here," he said of the risk of exposure. "The inmates won't get sick unless it comes from the outside, but once it gets in here, it's going to spread."
On Monday, Corrections Canada confirmed its first cases of COVID-19 in a penitentiary, with 13 people including both inmates and staff members testing positive at two Quebec prisons.
There have been no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus at the Springhill prison yet, nor have any inmates been tested according to data released online.
Corrections Canada said in an emailed statement to CBC that it is taking extra precautions to protect employees and offenders, including reducing staffing levels. Prisons have also suspended groups programs, temporary absences, visitors and transfers between institutions.
It said in cases where inmates are entering an institution, they're being screened for COVID-19.
Ongoing interactions between inmates
Stephanie McGlashan, a media relations advisor for Corrections Canada, said Springhill has adjusted the schedule for dispensing methadone and suboxone to reduce the number of inmates receiving doses at one time.
She said given that COVID-19 is an "evolving situation," the institution is constantly assessing its schedules and activities and working with local public health offices.
Zinger said in addition to ending some programs, the prison has stopped letting inmates use the gym and no longer lets everyone out on the grounds at once, meaning there are only about 200 men out at one time, as opposed to 400.
Inmates from all parts of the medium-security facility continue to interact though, he said. His cell is in an apartment-style pod with seven other prisoners and there's a total of 100 people in the entire unit. In addition, dozens of people get methadone in the mornings and then return to their individual pod.
"[If] somebody does get sick, or is sick, then it comes to our units anyway because those guys come back," he said. "The people that work here go home every night and who knows what they do."
Adding to his concerns are the many older inmates and people with respiratory problems or a history of drug use that have left them with weakened immune systems.
"If everybody got sick in here, at once, there's no way they'd be able to help us all. It'd be impossible," Zinger said.
On Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair asked the heads of Canada's prison system and parole board to consider early release for some federal inmates to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 behind bars.
Ivan Zinger, Canada's correctional investigator, told CBC he's particularly concerned about older inmates and those with medical conditions. He has recommended those who have been deemed not to pose a risk to be moved into halfway houses or long-term care homes in communities.
"The idea is to shift those individuals ... into the community, into a dignified space without jeopardizing public safety and at a lot less cost. Because there's a cost issue to keeping these individuals in a penitentiary," he said.
"Part of the challenge now is to try to do this rapidly with some of those offenders," said Ivan Zinger, who spoke to Blair about his concerns Monday.
At the provincial level in Nova Scotia, the Justice Department has released 42 inmates who were serving intermittent sentences in jails.
Across the country, advocates have been calling for the release of lower-risk inmates, warning that maintaining crowded conditions behind bars during a global pandemic could have disastrous consequences.
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, previously said she is "furious" that the federal government has failed to start depopulating prisons safely and quickly.
In its statement, Corrections Canada said it is "working closely with the Parole Board of Canada to examine all options with respect to the safe release of offenders into the community."
Adam Zinger has a criminal record dating back to 2002 in Alberta. In 2018, he was convicted of two counts of possession for the purpose of trafficking and several theft and fraud-related charges including possession of stolen property, fraud over $5,000, possession of a stolen credit card and forgery. He was sentenced to about three years, with credit for time served.
Zinger said his sentence ends Aug. 13. He hopes officials consider ways to speed up the process for inmates like himself who are eligible for parole. He'd like to be able to return to southern Alberta, where his mother and two children live.
Zinger said he had a parole hearing scheduled last week, but it was adjourned due to a problem accessing court files.
"Most people are just doing a little time, they don't need to sign up for a death sentence or go home to funerals," he said. "The humane thing to do is get the ball rolling."
Zinger's mother, Carolyn Gostola, echoed that request. She's concerned about her son's mental health deteriorating should the prison be locked down because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
"Let them come home," she said. "It's just easier and [there will be] less hardship on parents and children of the inmates. There's got to be some kind of compassion somewhere."
She has filed a complaint with the Office of the Correctional Investigator. A senior investigator, Stéphanie René, wrote to Gostola Monday saying the office "is looking attentively at how the Correctional Service Canada is responding to this situation and the broad range of measures to ensure the health and safety of the inmate population in federal institutions."
'Worst-case scenario, I get sick and die'
Gostola said if her son or other inmates didn't abide by the terms of their release, they could be sent back to prison.
For now, Zinger said he's using the sinks in his pod's bathroom and kitchen to wash his hands as frequently as possible.
He said he's also worried about his family getting sick in Alberta and not having a way to reach them, given temporary absences are no longer allowed.
"Worst-case scenario, I get sick and die in here," he said.
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