By Ryan Fatica
Prisoners at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre in Saskatchewan, Canada organized a hunger strike last weekend to protest the rapidly-spreading COVID-19 outbreak at the facility. According to reporting by Global News, the Saskatoon prison has recorded a total of 142 active positive cases of COVID-19, including 26 among prison staff–a number which is growing daily.
Cory Charles Cardinal, a prisoner at the facility and a member of the Cree Nation, described the situation in a letter released by Beyond Prison Walls Canada. “Saskatoon Correctional houses over 500 inmates, with 16 units, six of which are dorms that house 30 or more sentenced/remanded inmates, living in close proximity, sharing bathrooms per unit
with no chance of social distancing,” Cardinal wrote. “Three living units are double bunked, also sharing one bathroom per unit, with unlikelihood of social distancing.”
Spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice Noel Busse confirmed that prisoners at the facility are refusing meals, but specified that the prison administration only deems such protests a “hunger strike” after they’ve gone on for seven consecutive days. Instead, the prison considers these protests “tray refusals,” referring to the rejection of prison-provided meals.
In a phone call with Perilous, Cardinal said that he and another prisoner were transferred to the segregation unit because of their participation in the strike. There, they decided to end the strike after one of them started showing symptoms of COVID-19, Cardinal said. Busse refused to comment on the prisoners’ move to solitary confinement, citing privacy concerns, but stated that participation in a tray refusal would not be considered adequate grounds for transfer to segregation according to prison rules.
The current outbreak at Saskatoon is one of the largest in the Canadian prison system to date. According to Justin Piché, an Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa who tracks cases of COIVD-19 in prisons, the current outbreak at Saskatoon is the most recent in a series out outbreaks in prisons across Canada. According to data collected by Piché, the largest outbreak since the pandemic began was at Headingley Correctional Centre in Manitoba in October, with 243 cases. The second largest was at the Federal Training Centre in Laval during the first wave of the pandemic, with 172 cases. Saskatoon is the third largest with 142 active cases.
Piché’s recent report on the COVID-19 outbreaks found that “In roughly half the time of the first wave of the pandemic there have been 157 more COVID-19 cases linked to Canadian carceral settings. These figures do not account for transmission beyond bars linked to these cases. It is clear that the risk of significant spread of COVID-19 in sites of confinement in Canada remains.”
In the wake of the Saskatoon outbreak, a coalition of prisoner advocacy groups, including The John Howard Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society, released a letter to Christine Tell, Minister of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety, imploring her to take immediate action to address the issue.
“This outbreak is the inevitable result of the policies of the Ministry of Corrections and Policing, the Ministry of Justice and Attorney General, and Public Prosecutions,” the groups wrote. “Such policies have represented, and continue to represent, a greater risk to the general public than the measures that we advocate.”
The coalition is calling on the immediate reduction of the prison population, noting that “a previous reduction in the inmate population this spring did not cause any measurable harm to public safety.”
“As this outbreak clearly demonstrates, the risk of significant spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings like prisons remains,” Piché said in a message to Perilous. “Prison authorities in Saskatchewan, and indeed elsewhere across Canada and the world, need to divert and decarcerate people from custody to the extent that is safely possible. Governments need to also invest in building communities, not new prison spaces to enhance our collective well-being and safety starting now. There’s no time to waste.”
Cardinal and other prisoners at Saskatoon are demanding that Corrections minister Tell resign and issue a formal apology for her neglect of the health and safety of the prisoners in her custody.
“We have taken strict measures, based on direction from public health authorities, to limit and reduce the spread of COVID-19, including restricting visitation, quarantining new admissions for 14 days and isolating all offenders who have shown symptoms,” Tell stated in a press release. Tell’s office refused to comment further when contacted by Perilous.
In both the US and Canada, the COIVD-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting Indigenous people and in the Canadian prison system, this reality is even more pronounced. Indigenous people are drastically over-represented in prisons and jails in Canada, according to multiple reports this year. In the Saskatchewan provincial system, this reality is particularly stark, with Indigenous people making up 75% of the prison population but just 13% of the general population. According to a report released earlier this year by Dr. Ivan Zinger, the Correctional Investigator for the Canadian prison system, Indigenous prisoners are also drastically over-represented in the federal prison system in Canada. Zinger described the situation as “nothing short of a national travesty.”
Cardinal explained the conditions at the facility and the vulnerabilities to COVID-19 of many of his fellow prisoners. “On the lower bunk beneath me,” Cardinal wrote, “exists a 65 year old man who is serving a sentence for non-violent, property related offenses awaiting his release date quietly. Across the dorm, sits another few older inmates who sleep on the make-shift beds on the floor awaiting another few weeks to see an infectious disease doctor…Around me in the overcrowded dorm exist many other inmates with similar health conditions, with one thing in common, that they are housed in an overcrowded dorm, which has no chance of social distancing and they are vulnerable.”
These conditions of overcrowding were corroborated by several prisoners and others familiar with conditions at the facility. In March, Saskatchewan prison authorities responded to the state of emergency by releasing prisoners, resulting in a 30% decrease in the adult prison population in the province. But since then, prison populations have begun to rise again, creating conditions that advocates fear are ripe for a COVID-19 outbreak.
Many of the prisoners at Saskatoon Correctional are being held in pre-trial detention, or “remand” as it’s referred to in the Canadian legal system. According to The John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, the province holds people on remand while awaiting trail at a rate twice the national average. The group has repeatedly advocated for the release of such prisoners in order to reduce the conditions of overcrowding adding to the spread of COVID-19.
One such prisoner, Anthony Robertson, who is held in the Echo 2 Unit, described the overcrowded conditions that make social distancing impossible. “35 inmates, including myself, presently call Echo 2 home, one of 15 units at SPCC,” Robertson wrote. “A unit originally intended to house only 30 men. With 15 bunk beds spread roughly 1 meter apart and 5 mattresses on the floor, social distancing by definition is impossible.”
Robertson, like many others, worries that he may not make it out of Saskatoon alive. “Myself and other remanded inmates, presumably innocent until proven guilty,” wrote Robertson, “face a potential death sentence at the mercy of an unorganized and unprepared government institution. Is this legal?”