“Contain COVID, Not People”

Inhumane conditions at Leclerc prison are more than a COVID-19 problem

On February 11, women incarcerated at the Leclerc detention centre in Laval spoke to CBC concerning inhumane conditions inside the institution. Inmates say that those isolating for COVID-19 are frequently forced into 24/7 lockdown, sometimes deprived of showers, medication, clothing changes, and sanitary products for days on end – contrary to claims from the Public Service Ministry that their needs are being met. These inhumane conditions are evidently ineffective against COVID-19 – Leclerc has reportedly been facing an outbreak since mid-January. Since the onset of the pandemic, 121 of the 177 people detained at Leclerc have caught the virus. As of February 10, there were 23 active cases within the institution.

In an interview with CBC, a Leclerc inmate stated that she had not been allowed out of her cell in nearly two weeks: “Those in isolation were initially told they would be allowed for 20 minutes every two days to shower and make phone calls […] but it never happened. Many people have been in ‘deadlock’ for up to seven days without being able to call or take a shower. We didn’t even get out.” In addition to relegating infected inmates to solitary confinement, wardens and nursing staff have withheld prescribed medications from many isolated inmates. As a result of these inhumane conditions, which are not unique to Leclerc, inmate mental health continues to worsen within carceral institutions. Among the “serious mental tolls” these conditions have taken on Leclerc inmates, the source CBC spoke with mentioned increased suicidal ideation.

Though Quebec Public Security officials claim that showers and clean clothing are regularly being provided and inmates are being taken care of, the testimony of those most directly implicated shows otherwise. Another inmate told CBC that she was denied a change of underwear for 13 consecutive days despite the fact that she was menstruating.

Living conditions in Leclerc are generally harsh – inmates are deprived of safe drinking water, vermin and fungi infestations are frequent due to poor ventilation and hygiene, and asbestos is a constant threat to inmate health. The facility has faced criticism for its severe conditions for years. Originally a medium-security, federal jurisdiction prison, Leclerc closed down in 2012 when the Harper government deemed it no longer met the “standards” of modern prisons – standards that are already only the bare minimum. However, the Quebec government reopened Leclerc four years later, when the Maison Tanguay detention centre closed (due to its own outdated and abysmal facilities) and its inmates were relocated to Leclerc. After facing pressure from activist groups and the Quebec ombudsman, the government pledged that reopening Leclerc would only be a temporary solution for the women from Maison Tanguay. When asked about the conditions in 2018, a Leclerc spokesperson claimed that “the incarceration conditions of the female clientele and access to programs, services, and activities have been greatly improved and enhanced compared to what was offered at the Maison Tanguay detention centre.”

Lucie Lemonde, the activist, lawyer, and UQAM professor heading the coalition that wrote to Quebec Public Security Minister in December 2018, said “[Leclerc] needs to be closed. They can do all the patchwork they want, but it’s beyond repair.” Lemonde continued that the vast majority of the women detained at Leclerc are there for “survival crimes related to poverty: small thefts or drug-possession charges.” Instead of providing those living in poverty with resources and community support, the Quebec government continually chooses to criminalize them. Incarceration addresses none of the structural problems that necessitate these “survival crimes,” and only serves to further alienate those marginalized by the system. 

In a 2014–2017 investigation of Montreal’s police department, it was reported that Indigenous people and Black people – specifically young Black men – are four to five times more likely to be stopped by police than white people. In fact, although Bill C-22 was designed to “tackle the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people in the criminal justice system,” Indigenous and Black people still represent respectively 17.9 and 16.5 per cent of those stopped and checked by the police; Black people represent 8.6 percent of the federal prison population despite representing only 3 percent of the whole population of Canada. This is without mentioning that recidivism rates are much higher for marginalized communities. Carceral institutions cannot be extricated from the fundamentally racist and colonial logic that justifies their continued existence – it is only in the abolition of incarceration and policing, and the redirection of resources to community supports, that true justice can be achieved.

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of inmates were released from federal and provincial facilities. Especially in light of the increase in Omicron cases across institutions, activists continue to call for the same. Based in Montreal, the Prison Radio Show is a program that challenges the logic of incarceration and criminalization in direct collaboration with those who are currently incarcerated, including those detained at Leclerc. Support abolitionist volunteer organizations like the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project and the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, who continue to engage in direct action and mutual aid to fight against the carceral system. If you are able to, donate to those inside and their loved ones.