On the evening of May 19, 2020, Robert Langevin, a prisoner at Montreal’s Bordeaux Prison, died of COVID-19 after he wasn’t provided any healthcare, despite complaints of illness. Bordeaux, a provincial prison just outside of Montreal, is the first prison in Quebec to have a prisoner die of COVID-19. In a press conference the following morning, Quebec Minister of Public Safety Geneviève Guilbault characterized Langevin’s case as “unfortunate,” but claimed that the number of cases in Bordeaux had diminished overall due to measures the government has taken to limit the spread of infection. This situation has elicited the concern of many, including the Anti-Carceral Group, a Canadian prison abolitionist organization. One member of the group, Ted Rutland, has called for both the early and compassionate release of more prisoners in Quebec in response to the pandemic.
Despite Guilbault’s assurances that effective social distancing measures have been in place throughout prisons in Quebec, social distancing is simply not feasible in prisons, Rutland explained in an interview with the Daily. Per Rutland, the very structure of prisons prohibits the possibility of social distancing: many prisoners do not have their own cells and share many common items, which inevitably leads to repeated contact with other prisoners. “Most of the things that middle-class, unincarcerated people can do – like have your own bathroom, a kitchen that maybe you share with your roommate or the rest of your family, a telephone that might be your own – none of these things are possible. Everything relies on sharing in prison,” he stated.
The government’s attempts at implementing COVID-19 protective measures have included distributing masks to prison staff, putting some sectors of prisons on 24-hour lockdown, and limiting what activities prisoners may engage in. For many detainees, this has meant no access to television, showers, or reading material, according to a press release from the Anti-Carceral Group. And, in spite of these practices, the rate of infection has been 14 times higher in Canadian prisons than it is in the general population, Rutland claims; this inadequacy is part of why he advocates for decarceration.
Access to healthcare is also lacking in prisons at large. According to the Anti-Carceral Group’s press release in response to Langevin’s death, Langevin “had been deathly ill” the week before he died, but was not given health care. Bordeaux has also allegedly failed to test prisoners exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, the Anti-Carceral Group’s press release states. Lack of proper healthcare was a concern for prisoners long before the pandemic, ranking as the most common complaint received by the Office of the Correctional Investigator from 2014-2018, according to statistics released by Public Safety Canada in 2018.
Still, the Quebec government has not announced any intention to expedite bail hearings or release more prisoners, although other provinces have released 25 to 45 per cent of their inmate population. Regardless of this fact, many prisoners will get released during the crisis – a majority of adults spend less than a month in provincial custody, according to one 2018 study.
However, the release of prisoners is not so simple: the shutdown of prison programs has included the job-training programs which many prisoners rely upon to find employment, and de-carcerated individuals may not have income support upon release. The Anti-Carceral Group is working to provide such people with support through mutual aid funds, which are listed on their website. According to Rutland, to release prisoners without any support whatsoever is dangerous: “if people don’t have what they need to survive […] That in itself is a form of harm, that’s a form of systemic harm.” Yet, the Ministère de la Sécurité publique (MSP) has stated that “there are no pandemic-specific financial measures offered by the MSP,” and instead points de-carcerated people towards the Ministère du Travail, de l’Emploi et de la Solidarité sociale for aid.
So far, the provincial government has not stated whether more provincial prisoners will be released, nor have they addressed prisoners’ complaints about healthcare. The MSP’s “Questions and answers concerning legal and correctional services during the COVID-19 pandemic” wholly neglects to discuss what resources are available to sick prisoners. As such, Rutland has stated that the Anti-Carceral Group will continue to organize efforts which pressure the Quebec government into releasing prisoners, and encourages people to contact Geneviève Guilbault as well as Minister of Safety Bill Blair.