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Federal inmates facing harsher conditions compared to pre-COVID circumstances: report

Wednesday, February 24, 2021 @ 3:08 PM | By Ian Burns

Canada’s correctional investigator is calling on the federal government to focus on the early release of elderly and medically compromised inmates who pose no undue risk to society as it continues the fight against the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ivan Zinger released his third public update on the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on federal inmates Feb. 23. The report noted the second wave of COVID-19 infections has resulted in more than double the number of affected institutions, with case counts being two and a half times higher than experienced in the first wave.

“Since the start of the pandemic, just over 10 per cent of the total inmate population has had a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, which is a significantly higher rate of infection than in the general population,” he said. “I am particularly concerned by the fact that Indigenous inmates accounted for close to 60 per cent of all positive COVID-19 cases in Canadian prisons since November.”

The report also found inmates are spending more time behind bars because of reduced access to core programs and are serving their sentences in harsher conditions of confinement compared to pre-COVID circumstances.

“Through no fault of their own, inmates are being denied or delayed access to parole hearings and community release because they have not completed their program requirements,” said Zinger.

In addition to his recommendation on early release, Zinger is also calling on Correctional Services Canada (CSC) to develop and fund a plan that significantly shifts program access and delivery to the community rather than prison, and that federal Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair examine alternatives to incarceration and address the failings of Canada’s “aging, antiquated and costly” federal prisons.

“Beyond the impacts of COVID-19, a more rigorous, humane and cost-effective community-based approach to corrections is long overdue,” he said. “With more than 3,800 cells sitting empty across the country (equivalent to seven average size penitentiaries), the timing is now to reallocate staff and resources to better support safe, timely and healthy community reintegration and to examine the gradual closing of some aging and antiquated penitentiaries.”

In a statement released after Zinger’s report was issued, the CSC said its “number one priority” since the start of the pandemic has been the health and safety of its employees, inmates and the public. The service also said it has vaccinated approximately 600 older offenders prioritized by age and underlying medical conditions thus far.

“While there is always more work to do, CSC has adapted and learned a great deal about the challenges of preventing and containing the COVID-19 virus over the past 11 months,” the statement said. “We will continue to make everyone’s safety our top priority as we work to fulfil our mandate during this challenging time.”

The correctional investigator’s report can be found here.

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