Jeff Shantz: Incarceration during a pandemic should not be a death sentence

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      By Jeff Shantz

      On January 20, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix announced that there was another COVID-19 outbreak at the Surrey Pretrial Services Centre. In a joint statement, they reported: “Outbreak protocols are in place [at Surrey Pretrial], and public health teams from Fraser Health are contact tracing and supporting B.C. Corrections.”

      As of January 27, the number of cases had increased by more than 50 percent over the initial report, with 40 cases of COVID-19 reported. All but one of the confirmed cases were prisoners.

      On January 23, the health authority also reported that there were another 22 confirmed cases at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam. Again, all but one of those cases involved prisoners. In addition, nine prisoners and two staff have tested positive at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge.

      Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, Maple Ridge

      This is the second COVID-19 outbreak at Surrey Pretrial, following one in October 2020, when three guards tested positive. At that time, contact tracing revealed that the guards did not contract the virus at the jail. Guards bringing the virus inside is a grave concern that prisoners, who are, obviously, restrained subjects, have expressed throughout the pandemic. And those fears are well founded, given the outbreaks that have occurred in prisons and jails across Canada, resulting in hundreds of infections and multiple prisoner deaths.

      Pretrial, or remand, is an often misunderstood aspect of mass incarceration—detaining those who have not been convicted of crime. Yet it makes up most of the custodial penal system in Canada.

      Health and human rights concerns at Surrey Pretrial

      Many people might be surprised to find out that Surrey Pretrial is the largest provincial prison in B.C. Anywhere from 400 to 500 people are incarcerated in Surrey Pretrial at any given time. It was expanded in 2014 at a capital cost of $90 million, plus costs for 130 additional staff, at a time when the crime rate in the province was the lowest it has been in four decades. It was a massive outlay of public resources that could have been put to necessary services and infrastructure in housing, health, harm reduction, child care, elder supports, etcetera.

      The expansion more than doubled the pretrial’s capacity. In 2018, 15 prisoners at Surrey Pretrial went on a hunger strike against overcrowding. Expansion is not about easing crowding, as the government claimed in justifying the expansion, but always means detaining even more people—a lesson of mass incarceration.

      Overcrowded living quarters in California's San Quentin State Prison in 2006.
      Wikimedia Commons

      Surrey Pretrial has been the subject of several human rights complaints in the past two years alone. This past December, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal decided that the complaint of a prisoner, Kevin Miller, would be allowed to proceed to a hearing. Miller’s complaint asserts that Surrey Pretrial refused to provide him with a second mattress to help him manage his arthritis pain, this despite the fact that his doctor recommended the second mattress for that purpose.

      Surrey Pretrial argued that an extra mattress is a security threat and could be used to clog plumbing or hide contraband. Tribunal member Emily Ohler concluded, “I am not persuaded that there is no reasonable prospect that Mr. Miller could succeed in establishing that Corrections’ denial of a second mattress breached the Code.”

      In October of 2020, a prisoner at Surrey Pretrial, with many underlying health concerns, went public with his fears about contracting COVID-19 and the threat to his life it poses. Thirty-nine-year-old Adam DeVries, who was in custody from April while awaiting a November trial, reported that he suffers from asthma and epilepsy. He is also missing his right lung. He expressed very real concerns that contracting COVID-19 would kill him.


      DeVries’s lawyer, Alyson Dorin, claimed, “Not only are masks prohibited [in Surrey Pretrial], but inmates caught with a mask have it seized and thrown out. The masks are treated as contraband. Surrey Pretrial hasn't justified why these inmates are not allowed to wear masks."

      DeVries also reported that many guards themselves are not wearing masks or are not wearing them properly (on their chin or under their nose) Prisoners inside the North Fraser Pretrial Centre have reported that they have been allowed to wear masks. There has been no mask requirement for prisoners, however.

      Guards are viewed by prisoners as their greatest threats for contracting COVID-19, since they enter and leave the institution every day and are free to move throughout the community however they see fit. There is no way of assuring that their activities are truly conscientious or safe.

      Prisoners like DeVries also worry about public safety as well, as people released from pretrial move back into the community, where they can bring COVID-19 from the unsafe conditions inside. As he puts it: “The safer we are, the safer the public is.”

      Realities of remand

      In Canada, more than half of people in provincial/territorial incarceration are in pretrial. These are people who have not been convicted—so much for the legal system’s "innocent until proven guilty". About 79 percent are in on nonviolent charges. A substantial proportion are so-called administrative offenses. In B.C., administration of justice offences (mainly breaches of bail and probation) represent more than 40 percent of B.C.’s criminal-court case matters.

      The total number of adults in remand (awaiting trial or sentencing) has exceeded the provincial/territorial adult sentenced custody population since 2004-05. This has remained the case every year since then.

      On a typical day in 2016-17, adults in remand outnumbered those in sentenced custody by a ratio of 1.5 to 1 in the provinces and territories. The ratio of adults in remand versus those in sentenced custody has been increasing since 2013-14, when it was 1.2 to 1. In 2017-18, on an average per day, there were about 50 percent more adults (14,812) in remand than were in provincial/territorial sentenced custody (9,543)

      in 2017-18, eight of 13 jurisdictions had a higher proportion of remanded adults compared with those in sentenced custody: Alberta (70 percent), Ontario (69 percent), Manitoba (69 percent), Nova Scotia (65 percent), British Columbia (65 percent), Yukon (62 percent), the Northwest Territories (58 percent), and Nunavut (55 percent).


      Incarceration should not be a death sentence. With COVID-19 outbreaks ravaging carceral institutions, prison-justice activists have raised the call to “Free them all for public health” (#freethemall4publichealth). Throughout the pandemic's first wave, prisoner-rights activists turned to vehicle caravans and noise actions outside local jails and prisons. Honking car horns and sounding noisemakers, they let people inside know that people outside were thinking about them and were concerned about their well-being. They also raised broader awareness about the increased health threats prisoners have faced with COVID-19.

      Noise-caravan actions occurred at Mission Institution, Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, Alouette Correctional Centre for Women, and Surrey Pretrial. At the last Mission action, people inside hung banners saying “Thank You” and “Help Us” outside their windows while shouting and drumming along with the noise outside. People in Surrey Pretrial banged for most of an hour.

      Perhaps the banner of #freethemall will have to be raised again, given the recent outbreaks in the Lower Mainland.