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'Potentially very deadly': Advocates call for release of vulnerable women from Canada's prisons amid COVID-19

Last Updated Mar 22, 2020 at 10:58 am PDT

FILE - The Nova Institution for Women is seen in Truro, N.S. on Tuesday, May 6, 2014. The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan
Summary

A ban on visitors and a case of COVID-19 in an Ontario jail have advocates renewing call for releases from prison

For women in prison where risk is high and social distancing is impossible, advocate says many should be released

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — On Friday, visitors were banned from Canada’s prisons and a jail guard in Toronto tested positive for COVID-19, now advocates are renewing their call for vulnerable women to be released from the country’s crowded prisons amid the pandemic.

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies stopped sending advocates into federal institutions more than a week ago, concerned they could carry the virus to the women who are confined in them.

“The challenge is, when you have people who are living in very close quarters and who cannot escape and socially isolate themselves the concern for us is that something like the COVID-19 virus will spread very quickly. For women whose health is already compromised in many ways, it could be potentially very deadly for them,” said Executive Director Emilie Coyle.

On March 15, the organization issued a call to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to release women who pose little risk to the public in order to protect them from the risk of the virus.

“We have a lot of asks, we’re not the only ones who are pushing for this, but I’m certainly speaking on a regular basis with CSC and asking them to really put some thought into their contingency planning. And that should include ensuring that there are enough resources in the community to let people out so they can be safe,” said Coyle.

The organization is asking CSC to release women who are eligible for parole, women over 50, women with chronic health conditions, Indigenous women, and women in the mother-child program.

Coyle said women in prison who are over 50 should be considered as high-risk as seniors.

“In the general population, that would be people aged 65 and over. But for people who are in prison, there’s been studies that have shown that people who are aged 50 plus are actually at the highest risk of serious illness and death,” she explained.

Case of COVID-19 in Toronto jail terrifying for advocates

For Coyle and others who work with prisoners, a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a jail Friday has added urgency to this demand.

“I was terrified. And I think anyone who works in the advocacy world when it comes to prisons was equally terrified,” she said.

“I think it’s time for people to really take this seriously. We’ve been told that the women who are in prison are actually the safest in prison, because if they were out in the community, they would be at a higher risk. And we are actually coming at it from an entirely different perspective, and that is that they are just sitting there waiting for danger to come to them.”

RELATED: Canada’s prisons preparing for COVID-19, want public to limit visits

Coyle said most women in prison are there for poverty-related crimes, and violent offenders are often women who have acted in self defense. Forty-two per cent of women in prisons are Indigenous, and Coyle said this statistic shows how colonization, racism and systemic inequality all play a part in determining who ends up behind bars.

She wants people to understand that, in many cases, being incarcerated is not necessary for public safety or rehabilitation.

“The reasons that women end up in prison are generally reasons that the lay person in public–once they heard the stories of these women–would be extremely sympathetic to,” she explained.

“These women who have experienced a lot of trauma in their lives should not experience the trauma of being in prison, in fact, prison is the least healthy place. It’s not a place of healing. It’s a terrible place for people to be.”

Visitors and volunteers banned from federal prisons

The ban on visitors, announced Friday by CSC,  makes the conditions for incarcerated women worse, isolating them from family, friends and advocates, according to Coyle.

“It’s a really challenging time for everyone, whether you’re on the outside or on the inside of prison. But it’s particularly challenging for those folks who are in prisons right now and rely heavily on contact with people on the outside to keep them healthy mentally.”

CSC said it will stop charging for phone calls and make efforts to increase visits via video.

“Other options are available to inmates and their family and friends to stay in contact such as video visitation or telephone. We want inmates to stay in touch with family while visits are suspended. To help with this, we have waived deductions from inmate pay for use of the telephone system in our institutions,” reads a statement.

Coyle said she will be watching to make sure there is no-cost for communication, adding private companies charge fees on top of those charged by the institution.

As cases of the virus continue to climb, and the death toll increases Coyle said advocates and defence lawyers are joining a campaign to get people released to the community where social distancing and support are possible.

“We are working in concert with them to really said to Correctional Services Canada: We are here, we want to ensure that people are taken out of prison, and we will assist with that as much as we can.”