Justin Ling is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.
Whenever this pandemic subsides, it will take some time for us to fully understand the damage of COVID-19. No population is worse off than our seniors; the rate of loss in Canada’s long-term nursing homes underscores how we need to overcome negligence in the facility. Unfortunately, we also see other institutions that are not ready to be devastated by this virus. In prisons throughout the country, the plague has caused more than 350 federal inmates positive test for the virus; two have died.
But there are people who, horribly, experience both of these nightmares at once. Hundreds of elders are currently in federal prisons, sitting alone, with little access to health care and at high risk of death from COVID-19.
Our penitentiary has become a storehouse for old prisoners, some of whom have long been rehabilitated. Their continued detention was a logistical nightmare and a huge financial burden, and now, this is endangering their lives.
A quarter of federal inmates are over 50 years old. About 700 of them are 65 and older, and more than half have hypertension. Dozens suffer a stroke, or suffer from dementia or Parkinson’s disease.
It’s a matter of decades in the making. “Prison was never intended as a nursing home, hospice, or long-term care facility. But increasingly in Canada, they are being demanded to fulfill these functions, “it reads joint investigation February, 2019 Ivan Zinger, Canadian correctional investigator, and Marie-Claude Landry, who heads the Canadian Human Rights Commission. It was found that these institutions often lack basic health care, let alone palliative or specialized services.
This is a demographic trend. A 2011 report from Dr. Zinger warns that life sentences and uncertainty, as well as the increasing prevalence of mandatory minimum sentences, encourage graying out of our prisons.
Rather than recognizing this as a matter of making Ottawa, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair explained the death of an inmate from COVID-19 on live-streaming Facebook with a liberal teammate by saying he “was an individual in his 70s, and had several other health problems. “
Following Dr.’s recommendation Zinger – to judge every prisoner over the age of 65 to be released – would be difficult for some inmates to accept, and understandable. Releasing a convicted murderer, even if they are in their 70s, will not last for many people, including the victims’ families. And of course, serial killers and sexual predators who are still at risk for the public cannot be released.
But many federal inmates have been eligible for parole for many years and, for whatever reason, have not been released. This, despite data showing that parole older than 50 is the most likely to offend again, and that only about half inmates with more than 50 are serving life sentences. In some cases, Ottawa failed to build the capacity needed to exclude older prisoners, with some prisoners who had been given parolees for years finally released due to lack of accessible shelter.
Take the Fallon Aubee case. He was convicted of first-degree murder in a 2003 gang-related murder. Ms. Aubee spent years calling for change about how transgender inmates are treated in Canadian prisons and, after winning the fight, now works as a defense attorney. He is in his 60s, and also suffers from a number of medical conditions that make him at high risk for COVID-19. “I have a wife and community,” said Ms. Aubee in April. “We have a house.” He seems to be the ideal parole candidate. Despite proposing, he is still imprisoned.
The Canadian Parole Board has the power to grant parole in exceptional cases, such as in medical emergencies. During the first two months of the pandemic, only four were given.
Our prison system needs to operate with the premise that detention balances prevention, possible rehabilitation, public safety, and proportionality. This system is not designed to lock people in until they die: It’s just a death sentence, under another name.
But the Trudeau government refused Dr. Zinger to act. Mr Blair’s office said it was working on “a comprehensive needs assessment of the older CSC inmate population.” (“This is not what I recommend,” Dr. Zinger recently told me.)
Things are tense in Canadian prisons. The staff walks to the powder barrel every morning, and needs to serve a double duty as a long-term care worker. Many prisoners are locked in their cells 23 hours a day. Medical services have been suspended and essential drugs are lacking. We have to stop making things worse.
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