Prison with Canada’s worst COVID-19 outbreak houses Inuit inmates
MONTREAL -- Inuit men living in a specialized prison unit in Quebec have been at the centre of Canada’s worst prison COVID-19 outbreak.
Men with psychiatric problems are also housed in the same jail, according to a former inmate.
Government statistics have shown since April that a federal prison in Laval, just north of Montreal, has been contending with a very serious outbreak, with 162 confirmed cases so far and one person dead.
But it was never made clear that the facility, the Federal Training Centre, is home to two groups of especially susceptible inmates—susceptible not only in terms of their health, but in how hard it can be, for logistical reasons, to help them secure parole.
That imbalance has been a problem for a long time, says Benson Cowan, the CEO of Nunavut Legal Aid, speaking of Inuit prisoners. But it’s especially alarming now, he says.
“I think we were under a significant obligation to ensure that Indigenous people were being released at the same rate as non-indigenous people, but [corrections institutions] long failed that obligation,” says Cowan.
“In the face of the more significant threat to health that the pandemic has posed, I think the failure [of] Corrections and for the Parole Board to come up with a COVID-specific strategy is disappointing, to say the least, and shocking.”
The Federal Training Centre, often called the FTC, consists of two buildings essentially across the road from each other in the suburb of Laval.
One building is minimum security and the other is a mix of medium and minimum security. Between them, they have capacity for 764 inmates.
Only one of the buildings—the mixed-security one—has been swept by COVID-19 infections. That’s the building that happens to have the two special units, says a former inmate who spent years in both buildings.
A group of inmates with serious psychiatric problems were originally moved to the Laval prison several years ago when some of Canada’s forensic hospitals were downsized, he said.
“They’re just not able to function well in the system,” said the former inmate, who was recently released from the FTC after spending more than a decade there. He didn’t want his name published since he’s still on parole.
“Basically, they would be victims in other institutions.”
That special wing has a dedicated support worker, he said. Its inmates are able to “maintain themselves” in terms of basic physical needs, but have a lot of other impairments and “learning difficulties,” he said.
“They don’t need hands-on minute-to-minute care—they just need intense supervision.”
WORST OUTBREAK IN ANY CANADIAN PRISON
There’s little information publicly available about the prison. The former inmate said it has five wings—four consisting of cellblocks, and a fifth with condo-like cells where inmates can cook their own meals, as he described it. There are around 400 or 450 prisoners in total, he said, and two hospital beds.
One of the four wings has the psychiatrically impaired inmates, and two others are reserved for Inuit men, he said.
Correctional Services Canada hasn’t yet responded to a request for confirmation that the facility houses the psychiatrically impaired inmates. It did, however, confirm in an earlier statement that the building houses a unit for Inuit men, grouping them together in order to provide special services such as Inuktitut translators, access to Inuit elders and traditional northern food.
“They…have access to cultural activities including soap carving, Inuit games and country food meals,” said Patricia Jean, a spokesperson for Correctional Service of Canada, in an emailed statement.
The prison aims to keep all Inuit inmates, whether medium- or minimum-security, housed in one place so they can all take part in the programs, she said.
“This allows them to speak their language…share traditional meals and feel less isolated,” she said.
The inmates can also have “visits from partners in Nunavik,” she said, which suggests that the majority of the Inuit inmates are from Nunavik, the Inuit territory in Quebec’s north, rather than from Nunavut or other northern jurisdictions.
All Canadian federal prisons are taking extra precautions during the pandemic, Jean said, including enhanced cleaning protocols and “medical isolation” of especially vulnerable prisoners. Corrections has also suspended inmates’ visits, work releases, transfers and all temporary absences except for those for medical reasons.
But the Federal Training Centre’s mixed-level building has had the worst outbreak of any prison in Canada, federal or provincial. Out of 342 inmates tested so far—somewhere around 80 per cent of the entire prison—more than 40 per cent have tested positive.
The 162 positive cases put the FTC well above the numbers of other hard-hit Canadian prisons. The Mission prison in B.C. had 120 positive cases, while the Bordeax provincial prison had close to 100 cases, according to some reports, though Quebec authorities recently put the number at 60.
At the Laval prison, 146 of the 162 infected people are now considered recovered, with five tests pending.
Correctional Services hasn’t released the identity of the prisoner who died of COVID there on May 3, the second in the country—the first was a man who died at the Mission prison. Correctional Services Canada says that while they’re announcing COVID-19 deaths, they can’t release the deceased prisoners’ names for privacy reasons.
INUIT ‘SERVE THEIR SENTENCE LONGER’
The Parole Board of Canada has faced calls through the pandemic to grant more inmates early release. The board has said it’s rearranging its priority list so that inmates facing health risks can have their cases heard sooner—but it isn’t skipping steps in the normal process.
Since March 1, the board has granted just five “parole by exception” cases, according to its public statistics. Forty-four are pending a decision. The board said in a statement that that is an increase from its usual rate—last year it granted four “parole by exception” cases in the whole year.
That level of urgency is not nearly enough, especially when it comes to Inuit prisoners, says Cowan, who is based in Rankin Inlet and has headed Nunavut’s legal aid services since January 2019.
Inuit generally face harsher prison sentences than non-Inuit, and they also have more trouble getting parole, even at the best of times, he said.
“Not only [are Inuit] subject to criminal proceedings at a higher rate than their percentage of the population, but they’re also more likely to be convicted,” says Cowan.
“If convicted they're more likely to go to jail. If they go to jail they're sentenced to longer periods of time, and when they're sentenced, they serve their sentence longer.”
Even when other prisoners are up for parole and can relatively easily put together a plan for release—a job, a new address, and all the other components the Parole Board requires—Inuit prisoners have a tough time figuring out the same logistics, especially given the severe housing crisis in Canada’s north, Cowan said.
“You need to have a residence, you need to have supports, and an Inuit man or woman detained in a federal institution in the south is simply unable to meet the criteria of the Parole Board,” he said, at least not with significant outside help.
The fact that none of Canada’s criminal justice agencies appear to have alerted northern groups that a COVID outbreak was sweeping through a prison with so many Inuit inmates is a missed opportunity, he said.
“We would have advocated on behalf of any [Nunavut Inuit] who were in a federal institution” during the pandemic, says Cowan, if his legal group had known of them.
The Parole Board bears responsibility, too, he said—it should have made a clear plan “months ago” for how to prioritize release for vulnerable people.
At this point, it would be nearly impossible for an Inuit inmate to secure release and then, according to the northern territories’ strict protocols, to quarantine in the south for 14 days before boarding a flight north, he said.
He pointed out that Inuit tend to have more underlying health issues than southern Canadians, partly because of the lack of health services in the north, he said.
The national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami told CTV they hadn’t been aware of the outbreak and couldn’t comment. Quebec’s governing Inuit body, the Makivik Corporation, also didn’t comment.
LOCKDOWNS ESPECIALLY HARD ON PSYCHIATRIC PATIENTS
Prisoners with serious psychiatric problems have their own set of high barriers to securing parole, and their own health vulnerabilities.
It’s also important to keep in mind, says Senator Kim Pate, how much people with mental health problems can suffer when put in any kind of isolation, whether solitary confinement or simply a COVID-related lockdown.
Correctional Services Canada first announced a lockdown at the Federal Training Centre on April 15.
“The reality is that individuals with mental illness should not be in prisons,” Pate told CTV. “And at times like this, not only do we know they’re likely not faring well in isolation, but they’re also likely to see an exacerbation of their symptoms.”
Canada’s Senate tried to add amendments to a prison reform bill—Bill C-83—last year that would have made it easier for prison inmates to live in a community-based setting, Pate said.
“Those were rejected by the government, and now [the pandemic] is a perfect example of when it would have been far preferable for these individuals to be in community-based settings rather than segregated units in prisons,” she said.
Canada has an office dedicated to overseeing prisons, the Office of the Correctional Investigator. That office told CTV that only the Correctional Investigator himself, Ivan Zinger, was authorized to speak to media but that he was “not available in [the] foreseeable future.” They didn’t respond when asked why.