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Rights groups demand COVID-19 prisoner death inquest

Groups say prisoners’ details differ from Corrections Canada claims
Photo: Jail / Getty Images

Thirty-eight rights groups and legal organizations have called on B.C.’s chief coroner and solicitor general for an immediate inquest into the April 15 COVID-19 death of a federal prisoner at Mission Institution.

“Amidst a global pandemic, we cannot continue to sit back and watch people die in prison from the ticking time bomb of COVID-19 spreading through these institutions,” the groups said in a letter to chief coroner Lisa Lapointe and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth.

The groups said an inquest should examine Correctional Service of Canada’s (CSC) health and safety measures.

“It is imperative that no similar deaths occur and immediate steps are taken to prevent future deaths; incarcerated people should not be getting death sentences, the letter said.

Mission Institution is the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak at a Canadian federal institution. As of April 27, there have been 249 positive tests in federal institutions. Of those, 105 are at Mission.

The letter said what CSC has said differs significantly from what prisoners, officers and union staff representatives have said in the media.

The groups alleged CSC has:

• failed to implement proven prevention measures;

• denied requests by prisoners to eat in their cells rather than in the crowded cafeteria;

• not procured an adequate mask supply of masks;

• directed healthcare staff not to use personal protective equipment during intake process that places prisoners in medical isolation;

• required staff to continue working contrary to public health officer direction to self-isolate after exposure to the virus;

• failed to provide prisoners with access to showers, hand sanitizer, and necessary hygiene practices and supplies; and

• lacking ventilator equipment for the treatment of prisoners suffering from COVID-19.

An April 22 Glacier Media article detailed troublesome food-handling, health and hygiene practices at one B.C. federal facility. A prisoner said he feared for his life due to the conditions, but CSC has repeatedly insisted it is doing all it can to ensure safety of inmates.

“We all need to know what happened at Mission Institution, and Correctional Service of Canada needs to be held accountable for what will likely be deemed a grossly mismanaged response to COVID-19,” said BC Civil Liberties Association policy director Aisha Weaver. “Delayed, piece-meal and reactive measures are too little too late. An immediate public inquest is critical to find out the circumstances surrounding this man’s horrific death and to prevent future deaths. Transparent comprehensive measures, based on public health guidelines, and releasing all releasable prisoners are necessary to protect the health of all incarcerated people.”

The B.C. Coroners Service said Lapointe would be “corresponding with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association in regards to this specific request.”

The service said, in an unattributed statement, that “all deaths occurred while the individual was being detained by, or in the custody of, a law enforcement officer.”

“An inquest may be called if there is a public interest in “being informed of the circumstances of the death or whether the death resulted from a dangerous practice or circumstance, and similar deaths could be prevented if recommendations were made to the public or an authority,” the statement said.

Farnworth’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The 38 organizations issuing the call for a full, public inquest include: Abolition Coalition, Amnesty International, Atira Women’s Resource Society, BC Assembly of First Nations, BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, BC Civil Liberties Association, BC First Nations Justice Council, BC Health Coalition, BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-BC, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Community Legal Assistance Society, First Nations Summit, Health Justice, Jail Accountability and Information Line, John Howard Society of Canada, Joint Effort, Law Union of British Columbia, PACE Society, Prisoners’ Legal Services, Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Vancouver Prison Justice Day Committee, and West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund.