The Ontario government must release information about the prevalence of COVID-19 in provincial jails, as well as what preventive measures are taken to curb the spread, an activist coalition said Tuesday.
In a letter to Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, the coalition of Black, Indigenous and legal groups said they were also filing a freedom of information request to obtain the data.
“We are very concerned that there is no public information available about the current data related to COVID-19 testing and positive diagnoses in Ontario correctional facilities,” the letter states. “This information is vital for the health of all Ontarians, but especially for Indigenous and Black communities who are vastly overrepresented inside these institutions.”
The dearth of publicly available information on the coronavirus in provincial jails leaves families fearing for the well-being of loved ones and relying on sporadic local media accounts of outbreaks, the letter says. That complicates discharge planning, especially for Indigenous people returning to remote communities, it says.
In response, Jones’s office released figures showing Ontario’s jails have had 129 cases of COVID-19, of which four are active. The worst-hit facility was the now-temporarily closed Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton, with 91 cases. The Toronto South Detention centre has three of the four ongoing cases.
In all, 5,739 tests have been done on a current inmate population of 5,886, the ministry said Tuesday. Some inmates have been tested more than once.
Evidence suggests inmates in correctional facilities are at increased risk of contracting coronavirus disease. In a recent affidavit filed in Federal Court, a medical specialist warned that jails and prisons were particularly prone to the transmission of infectious diseases, in part because inmates are frequently housed in close quarters.
“In addition to being congregate living facilities, prisons encounter issues with hygiene, proper cleaning and general overcrowding,” wrote Dr. Tim O’Shea, an associate professor at McMaster University.
Similarly, the federal prisons ombudsman recently called for the dissemination of anti-COVID plans.
Federally, at least 360 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least two have died. Scores of guards have also fallen ill.
The activists point out that Black and Indigenous people are overrepresented in provincial corrections by “staggering” margins.
“Given this backdrop, it is essential that disaggregated data about testing and outbreaks in correctional facilities is publicly reported,” the letter states. “This data is already collected and shared within the ministry.”
The ministry said last month the population at 25 provincial jails had fallen 31 per cent since March 31.
“We want to know how this reduction was achieved,” Emily Hill, with Aboriginal Legal Services, said in a statement.
A spokesman for Jones said 40 inmates near the end of their sentences had been released, while those serving weekend sentences have been granted temporary absences.
In addition, Stephen Warner outlined other anti-COVID measures, such as stopping non-essential inmate transfers, providing staff with protective gear, requiring guards and visitors to wear masks, placing new inmates in separate areas for 14 days, and proper interior cleaning.
Get the latest in your inbox
Never miss the latest news from the Star, including up-to-date coronavirus coverage, with our email newsletters
Sign Up Now
“Inmates are also educated on methods to reduce the spread of illness, including COVID-19, and are provided cleaning products to keep their living areas clean, as well as toiletries such as soap, shampoo and toothpaste,” Warner said.
Other organizations in the coalition include the Alliance for Healthier Communities and the Black Legal Action Centre.