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Ontario Prisons in the Time of COVID-19

As of April 21st, 2020, the Ontario Correctional Institution (OCI) in Brampton Ontario was closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in order to allow for deep cleaning after 60 inmates and 8 staff tested positive with COVID-19.This incident raises several questions over the Provinces response to COVID-19 and the danger the virus poses to inmates and the community.

In Short: Despite warnings from medical professionals that their outlined response would not be adequate, COVID-19 has caused a prison to shut down. This highlights pre-existing issues with our correctional institutions in Ontario and increases the likelihood of an increase of COVID-19 cases in correctional institutions and our community. Unless decisive action is taken correctional institutions while continue to generate large quantities of COVID-19 cases and facilitate the spread of the virus into our communities.

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What is happening to the prisoners? As reported by CBC and several other news outlets, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General stated that all inmates are being transferred to a separate area within the Toronto South Detention Centre (TSDC).

Why didn’t we see this coming? Short answer, we did. An epidemiologist, Dr. Aaron Orkin submitted an affidavit with the Criminal Lawyer’s Association which states that outbreaks will occur in nearly every congregate living environment, including prisons, homeless shelters, dormitories and retirement homes. We have seen this occur in retirement homes, and long term care homes.

The doctor states that the preparations taken by the ministry to prepare for an outbreak will not be sufficient due to current strains on public health facilities. As well, common sense dictates that social distancing in prisons is impractical. Dr. Orkin claims that COVID-19 will sweep through correctional facilities and will lead to deaths among inmates and corrections workers. These risks have been confirmed by Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the Chief Medical Officer of Health.

How many prisoners are moving? The exact number of prisoners in a correctional institution shifts wildly day to day with 37% of all inmates being held in custody for 1-7 days at most, so an exact number of inmates is difficult to find. However, here’s what we can estimate based on what information is publicly available.

  • According to the Auditor Generals annual Report on Correctional Services and Court Operations  OCI in 2018/2019 had an average operating capacity of 176 inmates, and thankfully, operates with an average occupancy rate of 72%. Meaning that there is typically 126 inmates. The TSDC however, has an average inmate capacity of 1244 and operates at 89% occupancy. This means that 1107/1241 beds are filled at any one point.
  • An information note dated April 7th,  filed in several bail hearings by the Crown states that the prison population in Ontario has been reduced 26%.

This shifts our estimations from OCI having 126 inmates, to 93, and TSDC having 819 inmates.

This means that in this case, there was more than enough room to compensate for the failures that occurred in Brampton. It also means that Dr. Orkins projection that COVID-19 would sweep through prisons is correct. 60 out of approximately 93 inmates tested positive.

Why is this a serious issue? Two concerning facts surrounding incarceration in Ontario raise alarm bells.

First, both OCI and TSDC are operating well below their physical capacities. This is not the norm.

  • The goal for the Ministry is that prisons operate at 85% occupancy, this allows for proper cleaning, maintenance and dignity for their inmates. As of the auditor general’s most recent report 56% of correctional institutions in the province operate above their goal of 85%.
  • As stated before, prisons are not ideal for social distancing, meaning that even if we reduce the number of inmates, outbreaks will still occur regardless of overcrowding. The provinces 26% reduction in inmate population helps mitigate the harm, however, this reduction does not eliminate the chances of exposure. Meaning Brampton will happen again if we don’t do more.

The lives of the existing inmates in TSDC are put in greater risk as an increase in occupancy means social distancing measures are even more difficult, quarantining inmates is challenging, and medical resources are strained. If more institutions have to shut down, the threat faced by inmates increases substantially.

Second, any outbreaks that occur in institutions will lead to further outbreaks in our communities. According to the auditor general report:

  • 81% of all inmates are those who are remanded into custody, typically pending trial.
  • Of these inmates, 41% were out of prison after 7 days.
  • Of the 15% of offenders who are in custody due to a finding of guilt, 25% of them are out of prison after 7 days.
Auditor General Report page 24

The bottom line: Outbreaks that occur in prisons are not isolated incidents. They are outbreaks that will spill into our communities and strain our already overburdened health care system. The basic math of the situation is troubling and means that things will get worse before they get better. Brampton is not an isolated incident. TSDC has been reporting cases since March 25th, with confirmed cases of inmates testing positive in custody, and inmates who had already tested positive being admitted into custody.