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Free Them All: A Deadly Year of COVID in Carceral Canada

by Eva UretaJeff Shantz

Abolish Prisons Now
Abolish Prisons Now
Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Free Them All
Free Them All
Contain COVID Not People
Contain COVID Not People
Free Them All for Public Health
Free Them All for Public Health
Community
Community

March 20, 2021 was the one-year anniversary of the first prisoner in Canada being confirmed to have contracted COVID-19. This signaled a horrifying confluence of the brutality of prison and the global pandemic. It has brought together the awful everyday conditions of carceral institutions, already unhealthy sites, and the intensifying health crises of COVID and deadly drug supplies. As of March 23, 2021, Correctional Services Canada reports that there have been five prisoners who have died of COVID-19.

Prison justice groups marked March 20 with rallies and memorials at carceral sites across the country. Locally, family members with incarcerated loved ones along with abolitionist groups, including the Prison Justice Day Committee and Anti-Police Power Surrey, gathered at Fraser River Heritage Park in Mission (the unceded territory of the Kwantlen and Stó:lō First Nations) to remember friends and family members inside. Instant photos were taken to send to loved ones and letters and cards were written. Interviews were done with journalist Desmond Cole, as part of cross-Canada Free Them All events.

Folks involved had been part of the 13 Free Them All noise actions and demonstrations that were carried out last year at carceral institutions across the Lower Mainland, from Vancouver to Agassiz. Following the gathering, a caravan of participants managed to drive onto the grounds of Mission Institution to bring back the noise actions. The first federally incarcerated person to die of COVID, in April of last year, had been imprisoned at Mission.

CSC officers tried to block the caravan in briefly, before relenting. Prisoners who were outside waved in response. Last year, a noise caravan had gotten onto Mission grounds and made noise for an hour or so along with dozens of prisoners who made noise from inside cells.

The past year of COVID-19 in carceral sites has been devastating. The Tracking the Politics of Criminalization and Punishment in Canada (TPCP) project reports the following data on COVID-19 in carceral institutions, as of March 25, 2021. According to their research, there have been more than 7,000 COVID-19 cases connected to carceral institutions across Canada.

These are categorized as follows:

 

Overall

Prisoners = 5,084

Staff = 1,715

Contractors = 6

Unspecified = 265

Total = 7,070

 

Geographical and jurisdictional breakdowns

Federal: Correctional Service Canada = 2,004 (1,438 prisoners | 566 staff)

Nova Scotia = 2 (2 prisoners | 0 staff)

New Brunswick = 2 (0 prisoners | 2 staff)

Prince Edward Island = 1 (1 prisoner | 0 staff)

Quebec = 826 (530 prisoners | 296 staff)

Ontario = 1,399 (1,057 prisoners | 338 staff | 4 contractors)

Manitoba = 587 (468 prisoners | 119 staff)

Saskatchewan = 590 (454 prisoners | 136 staff)

Alberta = 1,482 (1,006 prisoners | 209 staff | 2 contractors | 265 unspecified)

British Columbia = 177 (128 prisoners | 49 staff)

 

Other Carceral Institutions (in addition to the above numbers)

Federal: Canadian Border Services Agency = 6 (4 prisoners | 1 staff | 1 contractor)

 

 

Free Them All

One year later the urgent call is made to Free Them All for public health. We need to contain COVID, not people. On the way out of Mission a sign was left: “Abolish Prisons Now!”


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