This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the spherical particles of the new coronavirus, colorized blue, from the first U.S. case of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hannah A. Bullock, Azaibi Tamin/CDC via AP

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the spherical particles of the new coronavirus, colorized blue, from the first U.S. case of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hannah A. Bullock, Azaibi Tamin/CDC via AP

COVID-19 lockdowns violate federal inmate rights, suit alleges

TORONTO — Federal prison authorities have repeatedly violated the rights of inmates with efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, a civil lawsuit alleges.

The unproven claim, filed in British Columbia Supreme Court, alleges anti-pandemic measures have resulted in a wide variety of breaches by Correctional Service of Canada.

“Without notice or explanation, it subjected incarcerated persons to medical and administrative lockdowns — a form of isolation akin to solitary confinement — for indeterminate periods of time,” the suit alleges.

“It suspended parole hearings and withheld the programs and services that incarcerated persons require in order to secure parole eligibility.”

Other alleged breaches, according to the claim, relate to the suspension of visits and religious services, as well as to the provision of substandard health-care.

The claim was filed by a prisoner rights group, the John Howard Society, and seven inmates. Several of them have serious health conditions.

Correctional Service of Canada said on Wednesday it was reviewing the claim and insisted its priority was to ensure health and safety of employees, offenders and the public.

“We continue to implement the rigorous health measures we’ve implemented in order to mitigate the spread of the virus,” the service said in a statement. “We have protocols in place to medically isolate inmates, when required, in order to mitigate the introduction or spread of the virus in the institutions.”

Other anti-infection measures include mandatory masking for inmates and staff, provision of protective equipment, physical distancing measures, screening of anyone entering prisons and increased cleaning, the service said.

Prisoners, much like residents of nursing homes, are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the potentially lethal virus, the suit states. That’s especially true given the high proportion of older inmates and for those with underlying health problems.

Inmates are often housed in close quarters and guards and other staff move around inside prisons as well as in and out of the facilities. At the same time, prisoners have limited access to protective gear or other ways to mitigate the threat of infection, the suit claims.

“The risks of a COVID-19 outbreak in penitentiaries are heightened as a result of the limited freedom and reduced ability to practise social distancing,” the claim says.

To date, Correctional Service of Canada has reported more than 1,400 cases of COVID-19 among inmates. Five have succumbed. The prison ombudsman has estimated that roughly 10 per cent of inmates have been infected, far higher than the two per cent infection rate among Canada’s general population.

Authorities have reacted, the suit claims, by repeatedly locking down inmates, often for long periods. That means no social contact, outdoor activities or even showers, it says.

“Lockdowns are tantamount to solitary confinement,” the claim states.

In some cases, according to the filing, inmates have been locked down for more than 15 days in a row — a threshold widely condemned as inhumane. Numerous studies have shown prolonged segregation can take a devastating toll on mental health.

At the same time, authorities have limited access to parole or programs that might lead to release, which would otherwise mitigate the danger COVID-19 poses behind bars, the suit alleges.

The unproven suit also alleges inadequate testing for the virus and basic health-care services have been lacking. Black, Indigenous and other marginalized inmates have been particularly hurt, the plaintiffs state.

The claim calls on the court to find prison authorities have breached inmate rights by, among other things, failing to find reasonable alternatives to lockdowns. It wants the court to bar lockdowns longer than 15 days or that total more than 15 days in any 30-day period.

The court should also order authorities to provide inmates with proper safety gear to prevent infections and resume parole-related activities, the suit asks. Those at high risk from COVID should be transferred to safer facilities or released, the suit asks.

“A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, CSC continues to fail to mitigate the effects of the pandemic in prisons,” said Charlotte-Anne Malischewski, one of the lawyers for the claimants.

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