COVID-19 taking a toll in prisons, with high infection rates, CBC News analysis shows

Robert Langevin was scared he might die behind bars.

“I am an urgent case and I am a vulnerable human being. I have rights. This isn’t human,” he pleaded in writing with Quebec’s provincial ombudsman in March from his cell at Bordeaux jail, known officially as the Montreal Detention Centre, where he was awaiting trial.

The 72-year-old from Valleyfield, Que., had heart problems, and he needed daily medical care and an oxygen mask. “I don’t want to die here,” he wrote.

That was on March 27. A few weeks later, the jail where he was being held was hit by one of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. Ninety-six inmates and 39 employees tested positive for the virus — among them, Langevin.

“I couldn’t care for my brother. It’s like he was abandoned,” his sister Pierrette Langevin said in an interview with CBC News.

A preliminary analysis by CBC News suggests that, despite prevention measures such as releasing thousands of low-risk offenders, infection rates are still five times higher in provincial jails and up to nine times higher in federal facilities than in the general population..

Overall, 600 inmates and 229 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and three people have died in federal or provincial correctional institutions for which data was available, CBC’s analysis found. 

Confined to cells 24 hours a day

Pierrette Langevin said her older brother was an optimistic man with a big heart who loved throwing dinners and block parties at his home, collected clothing for charity drives and would call the city any time a lamp went out at the neighbourhood playground.

Pierrette Langevin, Robert’s sister, said the family started worrying after he stopped calling home in early May. They had no idea some inmates at Bordeaux jail were being confined to their cells for 24 hours a day after a first case of COVID-19 was found. (Carl Mondello/CBC)

He’d served time for a string of break and enters in his youth but had been keeping to himself and working odd jobs, including as a mechanic, an electrician, a bar manager and a butcher, before being arrested in December on drug-trafficking charges.

The family started worrying after Langevin stopped calling home in early May. They had no idea some inmates at Bordeaux jail were being confined to their cells for 24 hours a day — with no access to phones, laundry or showers — after a first case of COVID-19 was found.

On May 19, they received a call late at night from Montreal’s Sacré-Cœur Hospital. On the line was the jail’s chaplain, who told them Langevin likely wouldn’t make it through the night.

He died in the following hours, too sick to say goodbye to his family.

“It’s a shock. How come I couldn’t talk to him?” his sister said. “Why didn’t the jail tell us he was so sick?” 

Higher risk for outbreaks

While the federal and Quebec governments regularly publish detailed figures on testing and confirmed COVID-19 cases in jails and prisons, the rest of the provinces and territories do not. In May and June, CBC News asked every correctional department in the country for its statistics on testing, confirmed cases and number of inmates. They all replied except Nunavut. Several provinces had zero cases to report.

Thirty-nine out of 137 provincial and federal institutions for which data was available, or one in four, reported at least one inmate or employee who tested positive for COVID-19.

“Even before COVID-19, we knew that prison environments were at high risk for outbreaks,” said Alexandra Blair, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health who’s been tracking cases of the virus in federal jails for an upcoming study.

Blair said that much like residents of long-term care homes, inmates are more at risk in part because they live in close quarters with many common areas and interact daily with several employees for their basic needs, such as meals, access to the yard and showers.

“We have a lot of people crowded in small spaces, sometimes in buildings that are older that don’t have great ventilation,” she said.

“These are also places where everybody eats next to each other. They are perfect environments when you’re thinking about something that can be passed on through a cough or droplets.”

Bordeaux jail in Montreal was hit by one of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. Ninety-six inmates and 39 employees tested positive for the virus, including Langevin. (Daniel Thomas/Radio-Canada)

CBC’s figures also show how pervasively the virus can spread behind bars in a given institution: The majority of confirmed cases — more than 80 per cent — are concentrated in two provincial and three federal facilities in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, including Montreal’s Bordeaux jail.

Along with Bordeaux, one of Canada’s hardest-hit provincial jails is the Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton, where 91 inmates and 25 employees tested positive for the virus.

The most-impacted federal penitentiaries are the Federal Training Centre in Laval, Que., and B.C.’s Mission medium-security institution — where the data suggests as many as a third of inmates were infected.

More data and testing figures needed, says expert

The numbers obtained by CBC are not a complete picture. Several provinces, including B.C. and Ontario, said they couldn’t break down their testing figures by jail or by day. Many didn’t know how many employees had been tested. Others didn’t specify if testing figures included multiple swabs of the same person.

“Having all that information will be essential for us now but also going forward with COVID-19,” Blair said. “The outbreaks that we see now are likely not the last.”

Available figures suggest 45 per cent of provincial inmates have been tested while 11 per cent of all federal prisoners have been swabbed, compared with nine per cent of the general population.

Infection rates were calculated using a snapshot of the total number of inmates per facility on one day between May and July, as provided by each correctional department. With the exception of B.C., CBC was not provided with weekly counts of newly admitted and released inmates. It is unclear whether the inmate population changed dramatically on a daily basis during the period we examined.

‘You have to be fearful,’ says Ottawa prisoner

CBC News spoke with current or recently released inmates in several facilities across the country, including a man who was held at Bordeaux with Robert Langevin.

“Things like masks and gloves, that all started at least three weeks too late,” said Claude Laberge, who was staying in Block C. He said at least 10 people were infected in that area.

Laberge, who now lives with his partner’s elderly relatives, said he got tested immediately after his release in early May and learned then that he’d contracted the virus behind bars.

“We would see guards, no gloves, sharing food or giving medication [to inmates] with no masks … and we would scream at them to distance or be careful,” he said. “It was causing a lot of sparks and tension inside.”

None of the current or former inmates were surprised to learn they are more at risk behind bars.

For those still incarcerated, they said they don’t have masks or gloves and are given little access to water or soap to wash their hands. Few physical distancing measures have been put in place, they said.

“My anxiety is always through the roof,” said Deepan Budlakoti. He’s being held at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, which has no reported cases of the virus.

“You have to be fearful because at any given point, this jail could fall on lockdown.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, advocates have been organizing noise protests in front of prisons, including Bordeaux jail in Montreal, demanding action to stop the spread of COVID-19 behind bars, in solidarity with prisoners. (Courtesy of Jamie Ross)

According to CBC’s research, at least 3,000 inmates across the country have been placed in isolation since the beginning of the pandemic in March  to prevent or contain a COVID outbreak — including in facilities without any cases.

In a statement to CBC, Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General said measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in its facilities include “medical isolation of impacted inmates as appropriate,” but it stressed that “there is no blanket lockdown in our institutions in response to COVID-19.”

Correctional Service Canada explained in an email that all new prisoners, as well as symptomatic individuals or close contacts of symptomatic individuals, are placed in medical isolation “as a precautionary measure … to protect inmates that do not have the virus and those who may be more vulnerable.”

In June, the Correctional Investigator of Canada issued a report criticizing the practice of  isolating inmates, stating, “My office is looking for an overall lifting of restrictions on conditions of confinement…. Rights need to be respected and restored,” it said.

“It’s a form of torture,” said a guard in B.C.’s Mission jail, where 120 inmates and 12 employees were infected — and another inmate died. CBC agreed to conceal his identity because he fears losing his job for speaking with the media.

A prison guard keeps watch at a secure mobile medical unit set up at the Abbotsford Regional Hospital to treat prisoners from the Mission correctional institution infected with COVID-19, in Abbotsford, B.C., in April. (Jesse Winter/Reuters)

Correctional officers were explicitly told not to wear masks in the early days of the pandemic, as management feared it would scare inmates, the guard said. “They’re not going to be intimidated because we wear a mask. In fact, the inmates wanted us to be wearing masks.”

Blair, the U of T researcher, said prisons and jails have a “toolbox of interventions” they can use to slow or stop the spread of infections, including ramped-up hygiene, universal testing and protective equipment for inmates and guards.

But if those tools aren’t used effectively and facilities rely only on long-term isolation, she said, “that is not … humane or just.”

The B.C. guard also said that despite management knowing an inmate tested positive for COVID-19, he was allowed to continue coming in contact with staff and other inmates for several hours afterward. This lack of precaution may have caused the outbreak at Mission, he said.

“I just look at it like they were just playing Russian roulette with everyone’s lives.”

Pierrette says her older brother, Robert, was an optimistic man with a big heart who worked odd jobs, including as a mechanic, an electrician, a bar manager and a butcher. (Submitted)

Pierrette Langevin said she feels her brother lost that lottery — and that little was done to prevent his death.

“I forget about the inmate. I see the man, my brother, someone in pain who needed help.”

Both Quebec’s Ministry of Public Security and the provincial coroner have launched investigations into allegations of negligence surrounding Langevin’s death.

At this time, he remains the first death related to COVID-19 in a provincial jail in Canada.

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