The Ontario Human Rights Commission is sounding the alarm about crowding in provincial custody, saying capacity in correctional facilities has at times come close to pre-pandemic levels even as the third wave maintains its grip on the province.
The commission says the province and the justice sector were quick to act in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing down the number of people in custody by roughly 30 per cent within weeks.
But it warns those numbers have been rising again for months, “as Ontario is facing the most serious stage of the pandemic so far.”
It says the “most obvious” risk linked with crowding is increased transmission in the case of an outbreak, noting there have been more than 16 outbreaks in facilities since December.
The commission also says greater numbers make it impossible to establish safe distancing protocols or to “humanely” quarantine prisoners who may be infected.
The organization also notes these risks are felt more heavily by groups that are disproportionately policed and imprisoned, such as Black and Indigenous people.
“The evidence is clear that the high risk of COVID-19 spread within crowded institutions and throughout the community vastly outweighs the risk of diversion and release from custody,” the commission said in issuing a dozen recommendations aimed at reducing the number of people in facilities.
“We are not suggesting that tremendous efforts are not already being made but, instead, acknowledging the complexity and challenge of managing COVID-19 in congregate settings like correctional institutions,” it said.
The recommendations include setting target capacity levels for each institution that would best enable COVID-19 prevention measures, and adding a clear indicator of the current capacity levels and how they compare to the targets in a bulletin issued by the province to Crown counsel.
The province should also issue updates and directives to Crown attorneys stressing the need for diversion based on areas and institutions where numbers pose an increased risk, the commission recommends.
Similar bulletins and updates should also be sent weekly to police services, and officers should be directed consider the heightened risk of COVID-19 caused by crowding when deciding whether someone should be held in custody before a bail hearing, it further recommends.
The Ministry of the Attorney General could not immediately be reached for comment. A spokesman for the Ministry of the Solicitor General said balancing health and public safety considerations and mitigating associated risks remained a priority.
“Since the early days of the pandemic, we have been working with justice partners to reduce the number of individuals coming into custody across Ontario through the expanded use of Temporary Absence Passes,” Stephen Warner said in an email.
“It’s important to note that the six-month average of institutional capacity across all Ontario correctional facilities ‘is approximately 80 per cent.”