Federal Prisons and COVID-19: The Call for Decarceration

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By: Danielle Foppiano

The Equity, Diversity and Public Policy Initiative (EDPP) is a graduate student-led organization at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. We aim to explore the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the design, implementation, and evaluation of public policy. We promote the adoption of an intersectional lens in policy analysis and encourage discussions of identity-based inequalities in the realm of public policy. We work in collaboration with Munk student initiatives, faculty and administration and other networks within the University of Toronto landscape.

Federal Prisons and COVID-19: The Call for Decarceration

Canada’s long-standing health inequalities have been both revealed and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. One such inequality is the high outbreak risk faced by inmates in Canadian prisons and correctional institutions. As a result, provincial correctional institutions and federal prisons have implemented policy solutions to reduce the risk of inmates contracting COVID-19. However, their respective policy approaches starkly differ. While the provincial government has initiated decarceration practices through premature releases of inmates with low to moderate public safety risk, the federal government has predominantly resorted to further isolating inmates by restricting social and spiritual activities. The latter approach fundamentally disregards the potential benefits of decarceration while worsening inmate mental health and safety.

Canadian Correctional Institutions

There are two key characteristics of Canada’s correctional institutions that provide essential context. First, sentencing determines where an inmate is housed: provincial correctional institutions house inmates serving a sentence of less than two years, as well as individuals awaiting trial or sentencing that exhibit a public safety risk; and federal prisons house inmates serving sentences of two years or more. Second, Canadian correctional institutions persistently endanger inmate health and wellness. They are often characterized by their lack of hygienic practices and inability for inmates to social distance, medical understaffing, and deterioration of inmates’ mental health. This became evident during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, through annual influenza outbreaks and exceptionally high rates of mental health disorders. Inmates also tend to have more pre-existing health conditions than the general population.

Provincial Action & Federal Inaction

Provincial governments took immediate action to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure for the 25,000 inmates housed in all provincial correctional institutions. From February to April, provinces individually released between 14 to 41 percent of their respective provincial inmate population into community-based supervision, such as halfway houses or parole. For example, Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General, responsible for all correctional services in Ontario, released 29 percent of its inmate population. Inmates were required to apply for release and were assessed for several factors, including public safety risk. These 2,500 inmates were either being held prior to trial or sentencing, or were approaching their natural parole period (eligible after serving one-third of their sentence). To date, Ontario’s correctional institutions have had 239 positive tests.

Despite Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer acknowledging the high risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in federal prisons, Correctional Services Canada (CSC) minimally pursued decarceration, as their inmate population only declined by one percent after the release of a few hundred inmates. Instead, CSC primarily attempted to minimize COVID-19 outbreak risks by suspending visitations at most institutions and banning smudging practices for the 27 percent of the federal inmate population that are Indigenous. Even so, several COVID-19 outbreaks in federal prisons have resulted in 500 positive cases and two deaths. Resorting to restricting inmate activity undermines the impact of familial and spiritual activities on inmate health. Implementing stricter health protocols could allow these practices to continue, such as enforcing socially-distanced visitations with more robust sanitation methods, where visitors do not come into close contact with inmates and correctional officers. These restrictions have failed to protect federal inmates from contracting COVID-19. As such, decarceration must be considered as an alternative to the current federal efforts.

Decarceration may be deemed unfeasible at the federal level since federal inmates are more likely to pose a higher public safety risk due to longer sentences or the nature of their crimes. Premature releases may be viewed as a more logical pathway at the provincial level since inmates are closer to natural parole or full release compared to federal inmates. However, 39 percent of the federal inmate population, over 5,000 inmates, are serving less than a four-year sentence. When considering two to four-year sentences, these inmates are eligible for parole after serving between eight to 16 months of their sentence. While parole eligibility subjects an inmate to a public safety risk assessment, after which they may be denied release, there remains a significant pool of inmates to assess for potential premature release. However, this is not without additional considerations.

Moving Forward: Ensuring Decarceration Success

            Several factors need to be taken into account when pursuing decarceration as a means to reduce the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. First and foremost, an inmate should ultimately determine whether they want to be prematurely released, as some may be more comfortable remaining in prison for the remainder of their sentence. This can be achieved through inmates undergoing an application process, where opting out of release consideration is available at all process stages. Second, for inmates that apply for and qualify for release, establishing adequate socioeconomic supports, including sources of income and social connections, is essential to ensuring an inmate can maintain adequate physical and mental health upon release.

Additionally, decarceration must be paired with additional supports to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, such as increasing personal protective equipment and frequent testing protocols, to ensure that inmates who are unqualified for premature release are also protected. It is vital to assure the general population that decarceration allows for greater health and safety for both the general and inmate populations, and that community supervision is utilized in all releases to ensure compliance with the conditions of release. Ultimately, decarceration reduces the use of measures that restrict inmate activity, which are more detrimental to inmate mental health than they are beneficial to reducing the risk of COVID-19 in prisons.

Danielle Foppiano is a 2021 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Her most recent policy experiences include: researching sustainable building practices for the City of Toronto’s Climate Action Committee; serving on the Equity Advisor Team as a Senior Equity Analyst for the Equity, Diversity, and Public Policy Initiative; and leading a project on renewable energy innovations for the Public Innovation Initiative. She previously completed an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Criminology and Environmental Studies at the University of Toronto. Her areas of interest include corrections and criminal justice policy, sustainability and climate change policy, and more broadly social policy

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