Public Health Includes Prisoners

Between March 24 and April 2, 2020, detainees at the Laval Migrant Detention Centre engaged in a hunger strike demanding their release given the unique threat that the pandemic poses to incarcerated populations. People in prisons and detention centres are at a high risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 due in part to poor healthcare, inadequate sanitation, and a high concentration of people.

As of Saturday, April 4, some prisoners have been released, but 20 remain in the facility as the Canada Border Services Agency requires each detainee to go through individual detention hearings before being released.

In a petition shared by Solidarity Across Borders (SAB) – a migrant justice organization based in Montreal – detainees stated that “in the detention centre we are in a confined space, every day we see the arrival of people, of immigrants, from everywhere, who have had no medical appointment nor any test to determine whether they are potential carriers of the virus. There is also the presence of security staff who are in contact with the external world every day and also have not had any testing.”

Prisons and jails violate all measures suggested by medical professionals to reduce exposure to the virus, as they entail large gatherings and living in close proximity to one another. Further, because of unavoidable close contact and poor access to health care,” detainees “already face higher levels of risk of infection,” making them more susceptible to health issues including, but not limited, to COVID-19. Lucie Lemonde, a representative of the Ligue des droits et libertés – a Quebec-based non-profit formed to uphold the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – also reported that there is a lack of personal protective equipment and soap in Quebec jails. This, along with the over-occupation of cells, puts these facilities in further violation of health and safety measures. These failures put incarcerated people at an extremely high risk of contracting COVID-19, adding to the already life-threatening consequences of incarceration.

Contact with guards and other employees who move in and out of detention centers also puts detainees at risk. On March 27, an employee who works directly with incarcerated people at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre in Hamilton, Ontario tested positive for COVID-19. This resulted in the exposure of approximately 560 incarcerated people to the virus, who have no ability to self-isolate or take preventative measures themselves. Meanwhile, the Centre’s employees have the ability to take time off, leave the facility, and self-isolate – incarcerated people do not. We cannot allow those in positions of authority to further abuse their power and put the most vulnerable at risk of contracting a potentially fatal virus.

In the case of the Laval migrant prison, the few who are being released are not being given adequate resources to transition into life in Montreal. According to SAB, one detainee was given a bus ticket and made to leave without any chance to access a phone to call the friends that he had arranged to stay with. Furthermore, he was told that he is unable to access official housing for refugees. For those who do not have connections in the city, a release from the facility without support is inhumane.

As they themselves demand, all detainees from the Laval migrant prison must be released immediately. While we recognize that the true solution to these problems is the abolishment of prisons and the prison industrial complex, there is an immediate need to protect detainees given the current situation. Public health must include everyone. We demand that the federal government provide assistance to individuals who are released. It is not enough to release incarcerated individuals – we must ensure that they have secure housing and food, as well as resources to support their integration into communities.

Individuals who want to support the detainees of the Laval Migrant Detention Centre can raise awareness by sharing and echoing their demands on social media. SAB is also asking individuals to create posters and banners and display them online or from their property, which they will add to their gallery of support.

The government must not remain silent on this issue. You can contact Federal Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair, who is directly responsible for these conditions, at bill.blair@parl.gc.ca. In your message, SAB asks you to use the following template:

“I am appalled that the government continues to flout its own public health recommendations when it comes to detention facilities, even as guards and prisoners test positive across the country. It is incredible that men detained in the Laval Immigration Holding Centre had to go on a hunger strike to pressure Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to take action. 

Migrant detainees and prisoners remain at an extremely high risk of contracting COVID-19. At least one employee at the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre has already contracted the virus. Minister Blair has not responded to the widespread call for immediate, collective release. The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) is instead slowly releasing migrant detainees through hearings. This is a wholly inadequate response to this urgent crisis.

All detainees, whether in Laval or in other cities, in prisons or in detention centres, must be released immediately with adequate, safe housing ensured.”