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Increased Crowding Behind Bars, Outbreaks with New COVID-19 Variants, Most Prisoners Remain Unvaccinated

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March 19, 2021

At the outset of the pandemic, most Canadian jurisdictions reduced their prison populations in an effort to increase the space available to promote physical distancing and decrease the number of prisoners that could be exposed to COVID-19 should outbreaks occur. After an initial decrease in prison population counts at the provincial-territorial level, by September 2020 the number of people held in most of Canada’s jails and prisons steadily increased.

Despite higher rates of COVID-19 transmission during the second wave and the spread of new variants as we enter a third wave, the best available data shows that provincial jails and prisons in Nova Scotia, Ontario, and British Columbia are detaining more individuals than they were at the end of the first wave. In most jurisdictions, vaccination campaigns targeting prison settings have yet to begin.

The combination of three factors – increased crowding, the continued spread of COVID-19 including variants of concern, and low levels of vaccination – are a threat to the health of prisoners, prison staff, as well as the broader community.

CCLA along with its organizational partners in the Prison Pandemic Partnership is calling upon federal, provincial and territorial governments to act now by ramping efforts to divert and decarcerate people from custody accompanied by supports in the community such as housing. We are also call on governments to make vaccines available for prisoners and prison staff at the earliest opportunity based on the advice of public health officials. Such measures are needed to limit further spread of the coronavirus and any further deterioration of conditions of confinement, which undermine public health and safety behind and beyond prison walls.

The report was produced by the Prison Pandemic Partnership, which brings the Centre for Access to Information and Justice (CAIJ), the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP), and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) together to examine the impact of COVID-19 on jails, prisons, and penitentiaries across the country. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) funds the partnership.

About the Canadian Civil Liberties Association

The CCLA is an independent, non-profit organization with supporters from across the country. Founded in 1964, the CCLA is a national human rights organization committed to defending the rights, dignity, safety, and freedoms of all people in Canada.

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