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Why COVID-19 shows it’s time to consider prison abolition

It is time to recognize alternatives to incarceration and radically rethink the prison system

COVID-19Canadian PoliticsHuman Rights

Two residents at the East Coast Forensic Hospital in Dartmouth get what exercise they can as sunlight filters through the wire that prevents contraband from being thrown into the facility from the outside world. Photo courtesy of the Senate of Canada.

There are five federal prisons for women in Canada, none of which are in Newfoundland. For women from the province facing a federal sentence, this usually means they will serve their time in the Nova Institution for Women (Nova) in Truro, Nova Scotia. Being a province away from their communities means added difficulty in arranging visits with family, and consequently another degree of isolation while incarcerated.

“When you’re at Nova, unless you’re from Nova Scotia, your chances of having a visit with family is very rare,” says Michelle Gushue of the Elizabeth Fry Society for Mainland Newfoundland, a non-profit organization that engages with vulnerable women and girls to foster reintegration and to address the root causes of criminalization.

“It takes approximately six months for your visitation list to get approved. The average length of stay is six months to a year.”

Once the visit is approved there is still the problem of family members getting to Nova. This could mean a nine-hour drive to the ferry for people on the east side of the island, or a round trip plane ticket, something Gushue says most families can’t afford.

“It’s just not doable. I don’t know of any Newfoundland woman in the last five years that has seen any of her family members while incarcerated at Nova.”

The separation from family, and the emotional and psychological distress that comes with it, was a normal part of the corrections system for women from Newfoundland. With the restrictions put in place because of COVID, these problems have grown worse.

Nova probably isn’t what you imagine when you think of a penitentiary. Rather than rows of barred cells, the women in the general population stay in houses with up to seven other inmates. When the institution was locked down at the end of March, these houses became their entire world.

“Women were held or told that they had to stay in their houses,” Gushue says. “All visits ceased. All programming, all medical appointments, everything shut down. Whereas outside of COVID they would be able to go to recreation, go to the library, go for a walk around the institution, none of that is happening now. None of it.”

Recently women have been allowed out house-by-house for an hour per day. It’s an improvement Gushue describes as inadequate, and one that may be short lived with rates of infection on the rise across Canada and heightened talk of second waves—and second lockdowns. The reports that advocates have been receiving so far from people inside has them worried for the health of the women at Nova.

“Their mental health is declining rapidly,” Gushue told Canadian Dimension.

At this point in the pandemic it’s likely that anyone reading this has experienced some mental or physical symptoms from the disruption to our social lives. Depression, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, memory problems, exacerbation of pre-existing health issues—not only do the conditions of incarceration itself produce these effects, but the frequency of mental health problems in the prison population are already between four and seven times higher than in the outside community.

An article in The Lancet Psychiatry Journal expressed concern that the loss of visits for prisoners could increase “mental distress, and the risk of suicide and self-harm.” In order to mitigate these risks it recommends that “[c]ontact with loved ones should be maintained wherever possible.”

The paper also notes the stress caused by uncertain legal outcomes facing inmates, and anxiety over their future in general.

The general malaise of not knowing when the pandemic will end has an added ambiguity for incarcerated persons, who have been experiencing disruptions in the parole system due to COVID.

“Women have been sat there and it’s only in the last month or so that they’re getting up on the parole board,” Gushue claims. “Women who were supposed to go in front of the parole board for release back in April, May, or June, they never went up in front of the board. So, they’re having their time at Nova extended.”

“I can tell you,” Gushue says of her own experience with the parole board while incarcerated in Nova, “your mental health state once you’ve received that piece of paper saying you’re being delayed until next month or two months down the road, everything changes for you and you just want to give up.”

Gushue says these delays have created a backlog of cases that continues to interfere with parole hearings, and likely will continue so long as Corrections Canada struggles to adapt to issues caused by the pandemic.

In an e-mail response to Canadian Dimension, the Parole Board of Canada states that “[t]he PBC continues to conduct conditional release reviews during the COVID-19 pandemic… These reviews are conducted by way of hearings via videoconference or teleconference, where applicable, or by paper review.” At this time, the PBC has not directly responded to questions about the deferral of parole hearings for inmates at Nova or the resultant backlog of cases.

Prisoners are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and the response to this risk within correctional facilities in Canada has only created an alternate outbreak of health problems. For Gushue and other prisoner advocates, the most compassionate and effective response to this problem is removing people from these institutions and returning them to their communities.

“The only solution I can see is to depopulate the prisons. I’m not saying open the gates and let everyone out. But there is a huge population of our inmates across Canada that can serve their time in the communities instead of behind bars or in a house locked up with other women they may or may not really get along with.”

Prison depopulation has been tried in Canada before. Between 1993 and 1997 Alberta decreased its incarnation rate by 32 percent. Being Alberta (in the Ralph Klein era no less), this was done as a cost-saving measure not a humanitarian venture, but the result was the same: it led to no marked increase in crime. Decades later, the likelihood of violent reoffence for a parolee remains low, averaging only 0.5 percent as of 2018.

This may seem surprising, given the tough-on-crime stance consecutive governments have thrust on the public, but the reality is most of the women in Canadian prisons pose no risk to the community to begin with. The need for depopulation is especially prescient during a pandemic, but the problems highlighted by COVID draws into question the practice of incarceration even in stable times.

“The majority of women federally incarcerated are in for non-violent offenses. What are they doing there?” Gushue asks.

“Putting women in jail or prison for minor offenses that can be dealt with and worked on in the community and could save hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars a year, would be more feasible and beneficial to the community and the individual—and help them gain the knowledge and the skills that they need and give them the help so they can live that pro social life and not continue in the cycle of crime.”

COVID has made obvious the inhumane aspects of the carceral system. The isolation, loneliness, anxiety, depression and dread that has plagued the general public this year is an unavoidable aspect of incarceration. A prison sentence is something to be endured until release, when the real healing and reintegration into the community can begin.

Along with all of these negative examples, COVID has also inadvertently demonstrated the benefit of keeping offenders out of institutions like Nova.

“I’ve been working with a girl for the past two-and-a-half years,” Gushue says. “It was only by the grace of God that COVID postponed her sentencing. She’s been working very, very hard. They were looking for a federal sentence of four years for her. She’s been doing everything she was supposed to do. Went back to school. She got custody of her child back. She did her programming. That woman ended up with 18 months house arrest. I see her once a week for a couple of hours and she’s doing absolutely fantastic. To go from a possible four-year sentence to 18 months house arrest. That’s huge. If one person can do it, it can be done.”

The pandemic has created an immediate need for decarceration. Prisoners are at a greater risk of contracting COVID and face serious health consequences from the steps being taken to keep them from catching it. It’s a contradiction emblematic of the prison system as a whole. In order to be reintegrated back into the community, they are removed from it. To overcome the conditions that drove them to crime, the necessary resources are made more difficult to access. The ostensible risk they embody is rarely present in the actual people facing incarceration, yet for the sake of public safety they are put into institutions that threaten their own health and well-being.

Removing these mothers, these sisters, these wives, these human beings from conditions that harm them should be a part of an effective political response to the pandemic.

Dismantling the system that placed them in this vulnerable position will be essential to rebuilding healthy and compassionate communities once the pandemic ends.

Brett McKay is a writer and journalist based in Edmonton, AB. You can contact him here.

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