Canada: suspending prison visits over COVID-19 sparks fears of inmate backlash

'I am concerned that I'm going to get a call saying my son has been sent to hospital, or worse'

In an attempt to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, most visitations with inmates have been suspended indefinitely in Ontario jails and federal prisons across Canada.

The Ontario government has suspended all visits with family and friends, while Correctional Service Canada (CSC) has cancelled in-person visits entirely.

The move to prohibit personal visits has prompted fears for some that the lack of contact with loved ones will raise tensions within jails and prisons, leading to volatile situations.

CBC News spoke with the mother of an inmate inside the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) in London, Ont., who said she worries about the safety of her son on a regular basis but is fearful these new restrictions will amplify problems inside the jail.

“I honestly think that there’ll be a riot,” she said.

“I am concerned that I’m going to get a call saying my son has been sent to the hospital — or worse, my son is dead.”

Her concerns are fuelled by recent events in Italy, where 12 inmates were killed after riots broke out following lockdowns and suspension of family visits.

The new Canadian restrictions came into effect on Saturday.

Her son is currently awaiting a bail hearing for a non-violent criminal charge. CBC has agreed to not to identify the woman out of concern her son could be targeted for her comments.

Inmate well-being a priority

In a statement to CBC News, the Office of the Solicitor General in Ontario said that they are doing everything they can to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

They added that the “health and well-being of staff and those in our custody are a priority.”

Ontario jails will continue to allow for phone calls and professional visits, such as from lawyers, spiritual support volunteers, native inmate liaison officers and volunteers providing programming and education.

Correctional Service Canada, meanwhile, is only allowing phone calls and video visitations.

‘Things could get bad fast’

Lawyer Kevin Egan, who represents over 13,000 current and former EMDC inmates in a certified class action lawsuit against the province over pre-existing conditions at the jail, believes that while the situation will likely remain calm for now, that could easily change.

“All it takes is for one guy to snap,” said Egan, “and things could get bad fast.”

“They’re already an anxious and violent group. And so I would be concerned that things might escalate if too much time goes by. This is the one kind of respite that they get, is a visit from their loved ones, and if they didn’t get that for an extended period of time then I can see things escalating,” he said.

He hopes that in the near term inmates will be understanding about the need for preventative measures.

No confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates

In a joint statement late Friday evening, provincial Health Minister Christine Elliott and Solicitor General Sylvia Jones also announced that inmates with intermittent sentences will serve those from home until further notice.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the province is taking decisive action to protect the health and safety of our correctional services staff and those in our custody,” the two ministers said.

As of Tuesday, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the province’s inmate population.

In a statement last Saturday, CSC reported there has yet to be a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a federal institution.

“CSC has dedicated health-care services in its institutions that have the knowledge and experience to handle cases of infectious diseases and respiratory illnesses, such as COVID‑19,” the statement said.

The general population in Ontario saw 13 new novel coronavirus cases as of Tuesday evening and reported its first COVID-19-related death. While the numbers continue to grow, so does the stress of family members with loved ones in jail.

“It’s heart-wrenching. Just completely heart-wrenching,” said the mother of the EMDC inmate.

“I mean, he’s in there because of bad choices, but he’s still my kid, and knowing that I might not be able to see him for a while, my anxiety some days is through the roof.”