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Activists call for release of detailed coronavirus data from Ontario jails

A Ontario transportation van leaves the Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton on Monday, April 20, 2020.
A Ontario transportation van leaves the Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton on Monday, April 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — The Ontario government must release information about the prevalence of COVID-19 in provincial jails as well as what preventative measures are taken to curb the spread, an activist coalition said on Tuesday.

In a letter to Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, the coalition of Black, Indigenous and legal groups said it was also filing a freedom of information request to obtain the data.

“We are very concerned that there is no public information available about the current data related to COVID-19 testing and positive diagnoses in Ontario correctional facilities,” the letter states. “This information is vital for the health of all Ontarians, but especially for Indigenous and Black communities who are vastly over-represented inside these institutions.”

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The dearth of publicly available information on coronavirus in provincial jails leaves families fearing for the well-being of loved ones and having to rely on sporadic local media accounts of outbreaks, the letter says. That complicates discharge planning, especially for Indigenous people returning to remote communities, it says.

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Evidence suggests inmates in correctional facilities are at increased risk of contracting coronavirus disease. In a recent affidavit filed in Federal Court, a medical specialist warned that jails and prisons were particularly prone to the transmission of infectious diseases, in part because inmates are frequently housed in close quarters in their cells.

Inmates at some Ontario jails being released to stop the possible spread of COVID-19
Inmates at some Ontario jails being released to stop the possible spread of COVID-19

“In addition to being congregate living facilities, prisons encounter issues with hygiene, proper cleaning and general overcrowding,” Dr. Tim O’Shea, an associate professor at McMaster University, wrote.

Similarly, the federal prisons ombudsman recently called for the dissemination of anti-COVID plans.

Federally, at least 360 inmates have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and at least two have died. Scores of guards have also fallen ill. Ontario jails have not been spared. In one case, the jail in Brampton, Ont., was shut down after 60 inmates and eight staff tested positive. The inmates were moved elsewhere.

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The activists point out that Black and Indigenous people are over-represented in provincial corrections by “staggering” margins.

“Given this backdrop, it is essential that disaggregated data about testing and outbreaks in correctional facilities is publicly reported,” the letter states. “This data is already collected and shared within the ministry.”

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Jones did not immediately have any comment. However, the ministry said last month the population at 25 provincial jails had fallen 31 per cent since March 31, 2020. It is not clear exactly how or why that reduction occurred, although the ministry has said some inmates were given temporary absences.

“We want to know how this reduction was achieved,” Emily Hill, with Aboriginal Legal Services, said in a statement.

Other organizations in the coalition include the Alliance for Healthier Communities and the Black Legal Action Centre.

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Abby Deshman, with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said it’s clear people living together — especially in long-term care and homeless shelters — face a higher risk of COVID spread.

“We don’t have any public information about testing or outbreaks in jails,” Deshman said.