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Isolating prisoners to stop coronavirus spread violates human rights: ombudsman

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Measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country’s prisons violate their human rights even if authorities are acting in the context of a public health emergency, Canada’s prison ombudsman said on Friday.

In a lengthy assessment, Ivan Zinger said strict isolation of inmates has put them in difficult circumstances, although he did not address specific incidents of unrest said to be related to the pandemic.

“The stark choice for many infected inmates comes down to taking a shower, or making a call to a lawyer, my office or a family member,” said Zinger, the correctional investigator. “Fundamental human rights and dignity…must be respected.”

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Data from Correctional Service Canada show at least 196 inmates in five of the country’s 43 prisons — in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia — have tested positive for the coronavirus, with 65 of them at B.C.’s Mission Institution. About 80 guards have similarly been infected. There has been one death.

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Zinger called it “deeply concerning” that prison authorities had flagged about 400 inmates as under some form of medical isolation, meaning being locked in a cell for all but 20 minutes a day. Some may be isolated for other illnesses or non-COVID reasons.

The ombudsman noted prisons had locked down inmates, shut gyms, libraries and other communal spaces, and suspended programs and communal meals. Even more restrictive measures were in place in those facilities with outbreaks, he said.

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“Daily access to the yard and fresh-air exercise have been extremely curtailed, offered only every second day, half hour twice per week or sometimes simply suspended outright.”

Zinger did report an “overall spike” in incidents at several facilities involving non-compliant inmate behaviour, protests, threats against staff, assaults on inmates and other disturbances.

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On Thursday, an inmate at Donnacona Institution in Quebec told The Canadian Press that guards this week had quelled a peaceful protest over the lockdown with tear gas and rubber bullets. He said one inmate needed hospital care. Prison rights group the John Howard society similarly reported hearing of guards resorting to percussion grenades to quell unrest at Collins Bay penitentiary in Ontario.

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Correctional Service Canada confirmed the two incidents on Friday. It said one inmate was injured at Collins Bay on April 15 when staff used “distraction devices” to get inmates back into their cells. The service also confirmed an inmate needed outside treatment after the Donnacona unrest.

“CSC reviews the circumstances of any incident in which force is used and takes the appropriate measures in order to prevent or improve our use of force practices,” a spokeswoman said.

Investigators have been unable to visit prisons because of the pandemic, but Zinger said his office was functional and had taken about 150 COVID-related complaints since mid-March.

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“At a time when prisons are closed to the wider public, my office is committed more than ever to shine a light on Canada’s prisons,” he said.

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He recommended mandatory testing and masks for inmates and staff. He also recommended better communications between wardens and the media.

Only 743 inmates — around five per cent — have been tested.