The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a giant flood light on significant deficiencies in Canada’s prison system, says Ontario criminal lawyer Michael Spratt.

Concerns over the pandemic’s potential impact on prison populations prompted advocates and lawmakers to call on the government to release low-risk offenders, inmates nearing the end of their sentence, the elderly and vulnerable inmates to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19.

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“This is highlighting a longstanding failure of Canadian penal policy where we have seen punitive conditions, we have seen conditions like prolonged solitary confinement that are tantamount to torture,” said Spratt, a lawyer who often appears as an expert witness before the House of Commons and Senate to give expert evidence on criminal-law policy and legislation.

“In Ottawa, at our local jail, we have seen women give birth in their cells because guards have ignored their cries for help,” Spratt said during a telephone interview April 22.

“In Ottawa we have also seen individuals sleep in mouldy shower cells because of overcrowded conditions. Unfortunately, we view our jail population as disposable and invisible and this has led to decades of abuse and mistreatment and that tip of the iceberg is being exposed in the current crisis.”

Spratt said inmates are at great risk, especially at the provincial levels because jails are overcrowded and unhygienic.

“As recently as January of this year the Ontario Supreme Court chastised the Ontario government for preferring financial savings over hygiene and the health of inmates. In that case, an inmate was given bedding and clothing soiled with blood and feces and human waste.

“At the best of times our jails are unhygienic and filthy and that only makes it more dangerous during the COVID-19 crisis.”

A group of inmates at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert contacted Spratt to consider a legal challenge to how the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled within the prison system and what inmates’ rights are. Spratt said he directed the group to Saskatchewan lawyers who may be able to assist.

Spratt said it’s difficult for inmates to take action on their rights.

“Especially at a time like this when inmates are being denied basic health accommodations and when the jails’ solution to COVID-19 seems to be locking inmates more strictly, denying them privileges and segregating them in solitary confinement. Those conditions could well be found to violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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Read Lisa Joy’s full article: New Optimist

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