Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Toronto South Detention Centre prisoner tests positive for COVID-19 revealing the urgency for Ontario to take more measures to depopulate its jails


Less than a week after reports emerged that a staff member who recently travelled to Europe and returned to work at the Toronto South Detention Centre tested positive for COVID-19, today the Ottawa Citizen broke the news that a prisoner recently admitted to the same jail has also tested positive for COVID-19. According to the news story, the prisoner was admitted to Toronto's "$1-Billion Hellhole" despite having "been identified as a possible case" by public health authorities.

Given the urgent need to prevent the further transmission of COVID-19 amongst people who are caged and working in Ontario's provincial jails and prisons, the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project is again urging the province to take additional measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission behind jail walls to protect prisoners and staff, as well as public health and community safety.

The provincial Ministry of the Solicitor General must work with the Ontario Provincial Police and municipal police across the province to encourage officers to increase their use of discretion instead of arresting and detaining people where there is not an immediate risk to the safety of others. The criminalization of acts such as, but not limited to, the simple possession of prohibited drugs should be suspended indefinitely. Police forces across Ontario also ought to order their officers to release people they arrest on their own recognizance with a promise to appear in court at a later date to reduce the forced displacement and containment of people in provincial jails. As noted in the Contain COVID-19, Not People statement released last week, local police forces and the "Canadian Border Services Agency should also not conduct immigration enforcement operations, especially in or around shelters, hospitals, or medical clinics" so that every single person in Ontario feels safe to seek support to practice social distancing and seek care should they experience COVID-19 symptoms. Such measures will also reduce the number of people entering Ontario's jails.

In addition to these policing measures, the provincial Ministry of the Attorney General must issue directives to Crown attorneys to increase their consent to bail, including without sureties and less stringent conditions, with the goal of limiting imprisonment during this the COVID-19 crisis. Crown attorneys and courts should also immediately review the roster of prisoners being held on pre-trial detention in Ontario to identify who can be safely let out on bail with resources to practice social distancing and self-isolate where required. 

Over the past two weeks, the Government of Ontario has taken a number of steps to decrease the number of prisoners forcibly confined in its jails and prisons. On 13 March 2020, the Ministry of the Solicitor General announced that weekend prisoners will serve their intermittent sentences at home or in the community through temporary absences. A week later on 20 March 2020, the Ministry also announced that the 72-hour limit for temporary absences had also been removed. The Ontario Parole Board can now also conducting hearings through "electronic or written means", which will hopefully increase the use of this form of community release. 

The Ministry of the Solicitor General can do much more to depopulate its jails to the extent that is safely possible, including having its provincial prison and parole authorities review the roster of sentenced prisoners to see who can safely be let out of jail on temporary absences and parole immediately. They also need to pressure the federal government to request that immigration authorities review the roster of immigration detainees being held in places like the Lindsay super-jail to identify prisoners who can live in the community. 

The evidence that imprisonment undermines public health and community safety is robust and incontrovertible. To limit the spread of COVID-19 behind and beyond jail walls, the Government of Ontario needs to take additional measures to reduce the flow of people into its prisons and to take steps to release as many prisoners from custody as is currently safely possible to do. In so doing, a portion of the $235 it costs to imprison a single person in Ontario for a single day can be redirected towards providing community supports that help criminalized people meet their basic needs such as housing and food in order to facilitate a broader just transition from policing, punitive justice, and the prison industrial complex to compassionate and caring communities. The Criminalization and Punishment Education Project has long advocated against new and bigger jails like the failed Toronto South Detention Centre experiment, and urges the province to invest more in communities, instead of infrastructures of human caging starting today.

Justin Piché, PhD
Associate Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa
613-793-1093 / 

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