The COVID-19 pandemic and the deepening economic crisis are imposing far more serious consequences on working people and those in poverty than on the wealthy and the big corporations. Prisoners, the majority of whom are from racialized communities, are among those most vulnerable, and the Communist Party of Canada joins with many others to demand urgent measures by governments to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the federal and provincial incarceration systems. This should include the immediate release of non-violent offenders and all those nearing the end of their prison terms.
Canada is among those countries where imprisonment is one of many tools of the state to enforce a high degree of systemic racism. Indigenous people account for 4.3 percent of the general population, but 25 percent of the federal prison population. Similarly, Black Canadians now represent the fastest growing group in federal prisons and are vastly overrepresented behind bars. While Black Canadians make up three per cent of the general population, they account for 10 per cent of the federal prison population.
Canada’s penal system is enormously expensive, costing more than $5 billion per year to maintain. In total, there are over 39,000 adults incarcerated during an average day – about 25,000 in provincial/territorial institutions, and another 14,000 in federal custody. The majority have not committed violent crimes and pose no physical danger to the population at large. In spite of this, these inmates are held in a prison system which is virtually a guaranteed incubator for the spread of the highly infectious COVID-19, endangering themselves as well as prison guards. Prisoners are unable to self-isolate and have limited access to hygiene and sanitary products. Many inmates are older people or have compromised immune systems that would cause major complications if they were to get infected with COVID-19.
For those inmates who are not a risk to public safety, and who have a safe place to stay, immediate release is vital and would be in the best interests of society at large, potentially helping to reduce the impact of the pandemic on local community hospitals.
The Canadian legal system explicitly allows for such measures; a section of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act can be used to provide for early release of any offender for whom continued confinement would constitute an excessive hardship. We further call for increased health resources and protections for inmates who are still in confinement, and also have the right to health and safety.
All that is needed is the necessary political will to take such action. The Communist Party of Canada calls upon governments – Do the right thing now. Immediately release all inmates in federal and provincial institutions who do not pose a risk of violence, before the pandemic begins to take a deadly toll among prisoners and guards.
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