Immediately after Ontario declared the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as being a public health emergency in mid-March 2020, all visits from family and friends and programming were suspended in prisons in the province.
With little information from the Ministry of the Solicitor General regarding their efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, the Prisoners’ HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN) was flooded with phone calls from prisoners concerned about their health and the well-being of their family and friends.
What COVID-19 looks like in Ontario prisons
As of early June, 360 cases of COVID-19 were reported in federal prisons. The Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General has just recently started publishing updates on the total number of cases in provincial institutions.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) was not provided or mandated to be worn by staff until late April in provincial institutions, which contributed to infections among staff and prisoners in the early days of the pandemic. The risk of an outbreak is very high in correctional facilities as it is very difficult to follow infection control best practices, as prisoners share phones, showers, cells and common areas with non-removable tables, which are less than two metres apart. Prisoners were not provided with PPE, hand sanitizer or supplies to clean surfaces.
PASAN quickly took action during this stressful time by forwarding prisoner phone calls to outreach staff working from home, so we could provide information on how to minimize the risk of infection in provincial institutions in Ontario. We offered strategies to reduce the risk of transmission, such as putting a sock over the phone receiver, not using the gym, avoiding close contact whenever possible, and covering their faces with t-shirts or other fabrics. We sent information sheets to prisoners in hopes that they would assist them in staying safe and protecting themselves.
How COVID-19 affects prisoners’ health and well-being
Mental health was and still is a major concern for people who are incarcerated during this difficult time. Many of our clients living with HIV or hepatitis C reported that this pandemic has negatively affected both their mental and physical health.
Because prisons suspended programming and enforced lockdowns, many prisoners are missing their routines. Steady routines allow prisoners to cope with the hardships of being imprisoned. This sudden change is threatening the mental health of people who are incarcerated, causing many to feel bored or emotionally distressed. We also heard about an increase in the number of fights and overdoses in Ontario prisons.
PASAN has developed worksheets to further engage prisoners in meaningful self-reflection, with the hope that they will allow them to better cope with the unrest caused by the COVID-19 crisis. We have also shifted programming to a remote model, where self-assessments, informational worksheets and phone calls to our Canada-wide toll-free number have replaced in-person workshops.
Once released, what next?
During the pandemic, many incarcerated clients have been trying to prepare for their release back into the community, some of whom (such as people with underlying conditions) were granted early release. People who are incarcerated with less than three months to serve could apply for a temporary access program and have community supervision. From March 16 through May 26, there was a 31% decrease in the number of provincial prisoners. While decarceration was welcome news during the time of COVID-19, prison staff were overwhelmed with pre-release planning and prisoners found it stressful and chaotic to navigate their return back into community.
To make matters worse for those recently released, halfway houses – which facilitate the transition of federal prisoners back into the community – stopped accepting new residents, to minimize the spread of the virus. Most organizations that would provide support before and during their release were temporarily closed or not providing remote services at the time.
The lack of housing options for ex-prisoners was yet another hurdle. Many ex-prisoners were facing the reality of homelessness and an interruption to income. Prisoners that were released expressed that living in this state of chaos put them at risk for re-incarceration, as they had nowhere to stay or had no income to live on.
The quality of life for prisoners who were released to halfway houses before this state of emergency was also challenging. Halfway houses expected that residents would live under lockdown with only two hours a week for their “essential” needs, an experience similar to incarceration that further triggered and affected ex-prisoners’ mental health.
The role that community plays
PASAN has responded to the pandemic by maintaining communication with prisoners, allowing us to continue to link them to beneficial community resources. We were able to connect HIV-positive prisoners with lawyers at the HIV/AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO) through three-way calling. We continue to provide pre-release support to prisoners and refer them post-release to AIDS service organizations, shelters and other community services. We keep in contact with clients in the community through weekly wellness checks and deliveries of food and harm reduction supplies.
As early as March, people who were incarcerated expressed concern about the delay in providing PPE for prison staff and the high risk of transmission that this delay posed for them. Staff were leaving the institution and returning back into the prisons without any PPE or practising physical distancing. PASAN advocated for prisoners by writing to the Solicitor General of Ontario and pushing for the health of prisoners to be considered during the COVID-19 crisis.
PASAN staff also worked with the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project to create and administer a fund for newly released prisoners. The funds provide people with financial assistance to meet their basic needs such as clothing, travel and food.
Preparing for the second wave
We are now focusing on the anticipated second wave of COVID-19 and how to continue providing prisoners with the support they need. Infections continue to occur inside prisons despite of the lack of media attention towards the state of institutions across Canada and how COVID-19 affects the lives of prisoners.
There is still much work that needs to be done and we need to continue efforts to advocate and support people inside Canadian prisons and jails during this pandemic. Working collaboratively to dismantle barriers and risks to prisoners has never been more pressing.
PASAN continues to deliver services remotely to prisoners and ex-prisoners and we will always keep our lines of communication open in solidarity with prisoners.
Eveline Allen (regional prison in-reach coordinator), Chris McNab, Nicole Alexander (federal in-reach community development coordinators) and Claudia Medina (program manager) all work for the Prisoners’ HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN). PASAN formed in 1991 as a grassroots response to HIV in the Canadian prison system. Today, PASAN is the only community-based organization in Canada exclusively providing HIV and hepatitis C prevention, education and support services to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.