All prisoners should be provided with plain-language information about COVID-19, personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, as well as sanitary supplies including soap, sanitizer with sufficient alcohol content, water, bleach, and cleaning supplies, without cost to them or further delay. Enhanced cleaning should also be carried out by staff who are properly trained, equipped, and protected.
For those known to have been directly exposed to the virus or who are exhibiting symptoms, testing and protocols to prevent further transmission should be established in line with the expert guidance provided by public health officials. It is essential that these measures be evidence-based and not unduly restrictive of prisoners’ residual liberty. In particular, the use of prolonged or indefinite lockdowns and/or segregation must be avoided. As you know, the Court of Appeal for Ontario has held that segregation for more than 15 days violates section 12 of the Charter due to its demonstrated and often permanent effects on prisoners’ health. Any use of restrictive measures must be a last resort — after community placements and other measures have been implemented — and must be as minimally restrictive as possible. The psychological and emotional well-being of prisoners, who are disproportionately likely to be living with mental health conditions, should not be jeopardized while protective measures and protocol are being implemented.
Further we urge the government to ensure that sufficient medical staff and resources are available within institutions, both to care for those who may contract COVID-19 but do not require hospitalization, and to provide uninterrupted treatment for those prisoners living with HIV, hepatitis C (HCV), and/or other underlying health conditions.
Mental health and other supports
Amid this pandemic, continued contact with family and friends is vital to prisoners’ mental health and emotional well-being. With in-person visits suspended, it is especially important that prisoners have meaningful access to other means of communicating with their loved ones. At a minimum, phone calls for prisoners should be free. The number of phones available must also be increased and access to videoconferencing facilities for prisoners’ personal communications must be expanded. For example, Ontario Telehealth Network (“OTN”), a secure video-conferencing system, is one resource already available at most correctional facilities in Ontario that may be an effective alternative to using the communal telephones.
Prisoners should also be provided with access to more mental health, public health, and legal supports via external agencies; this entails giving all prisoners a list of available agencies and government supports and their contacts.
Finally, proper release planning is essential and all the more pressing when public health guidance recommends physical distancing. People should be released with PPE and sanitary supplies as well as information about and links to resources that are available during the pandemic. Moreover, your ministries must work with municipalities and agencies to ensure people released from provincial custody have a place to safely isolate, without exposing themselves or others to the risk of infection. As housing advocates have emphasized, physical distancing is not possible in congregate shelter settings. All people without secure shelter, including those released from provincial custody, must be moved into hotels or housing. Dedicated transitional housing for people released from provincial custody should be prioritized.