‘It’s inhumane’: Many federal inmates haven’t seen loved ones in over 2 years

While most health restrictions have been lifted across the country, many inmates in federal correctional facilities have not been able to see loved ones in person since the pandemic began in Canada in March 2020.

“It’s inhuman, everyone has the right to see their family,” said Daniel Amecia, who is incarcerated at the maximum security federal institution in Donnacona, near Quebec. In a phone interview, Amecia said he hasn’t been able to see his girlfriend, sisters, nephews or nieces in person since the pandemic began.

Another inmate whom the CBC has agreed to call Bernard because he fears reprisals if he speaks out, says the situation is similar at the medium-security Drummond Institution in Drummondville, Que. He hasn’t been allowed to see his girlfriend for over two years now.

“We don’t ask for much, we just want to see the people we love,” he said in a phone interview.

For the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), “the health and safety of staff and inmates remains a top priority,” a spokesperson said by email.

“CSC has begun to gradually resume inmate visits. However, at present, there are active cases of COVID-19 among inmates in federal correctional facilities across the country. Consequently, visits to certain establishments are suspended.

A Correctional Service of Canada guard walks down the hallway of a federal correctional facility. (Correctional Service Canada)

As of March 23, there were a total of 319 active cases of COVID-19 in all correctional facilities across the country, including six in Quebec. Two of these active cases were detected at Donnacona Institution.

“As the waves have calmed down, there have been reopenings at some visitation sites and there have been other closures depending on the evolution of the risks,” said CSC’s chief security officer, Geneviève Thibeault, in a subsequent telephone interview. CSC was unable to specify the exact dates of these reopenings in time for publication.

“It seems totally counterproductive”

Since March 25, the CSC website reported that contactless visits, which “take place behind glass or some other form of physical barrier between visitor and inmate,” are only permitted in 27 of 61 federal correctional facilities.

Contactless visits resumed on March 23 at Drummond Institution. They are still prohibited in Donnacona.

To date, no federal institution authorizes contact visits — “conducted in an open area where no barrier separates the inmate and the visitor(s)” — or private family visits (PFV), which ” take place in separate structures within the perimeter of the institution where the inmate can meet in private with authorized visitors. These private visits normally last up to 72 hours, once every two months.

“Everyone got vaccinated precisely for the VLP, for the visits”, specifies Bernard. As of March 20, 88% of inmates at Drummond Institution had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to CSC data. In Donnacona, the proportion of vaccinated is 81.5%.

Bernard and Almecia can’t understand why they still face such severe restrictions when the vast majority of prisoners have been vaccinated and life on the outside is back to normal.

According to Sandra Lehalle, a professor at the University of Ottawa, reducing inmates’ access to the outside world and their families is not a good rehabilitation strategy. (University of Ottawa)

Sandra Lehalle, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, sees it as an illustration of how the correctional service prioritizes safety at the expense of its “social reintegration mandate”, she said in a telephone interview.

Prisoners are “probably going through the most stressful time of their lives, and their primary emotional support is cut off,” Lehalle said.

“It’s as if we had multiplied the obstacles and cut off the points of support for these people,” she said. “It seems totally counterproductive with the official goal of a prison sentence.”

“As it is, you’re kind of ruining our lives,” Almecia said of the tour suspension. “The phone is all well and good, but at some point you can’t sustain a life with your family outside over the phone, you know what I mean? »

Videoconferences deemed insufficient

Almecia has been able to see his loved ones by videoconference, but these are limited to one or two 20-minute sessions per week – “if you’re lucky”, he says – whereas he was previously entitled to three regular visits one hour per week. week.

Bernard and his partner Nancy, who also wishes to remain anonymous, said they have not even been able to meet by videoconference for a few months now in Drummond.

“There is no policy that limits the length of each videoconference,” Thibeault said. “Video is determined by each institution based on the number of devices they have and the number of requests.”

“CSC has installed additional video conferencing visit kiosks across the country” and “increased bandwidth to support video conferencing visits,” a spokesperson said in an email.

“In several establishments, it has also increased the number of hours during which visits by videoconference are permitted. All establishments are equipped to offer visits by videoconference.

Amecia’s girlfriend, who prefers to be identified only by her first name, Laura, confirmed in a telephone interview the length and frequency of the video calls.

“Then we’re watched for 20 minutes, so there’s no privacy either,” she added. “It’s me, my boyfriend, then someone else whose camera is off.”

Thibeault denied this information.

“It’s not,” she said. “Whether by telephone, whether by videoconference, whether in the visiting room, conversations are not systematically listened to.”

Neither the Drummond facility nor the Donnacona facility were able to respond to CBC News’ requests for clarification regarding video conferencing in time for publication.

Drummond Penitentiary in Drummondville, Que., is one of several federal prisons that have severely restricted visitation due to the pandemic. (Jean-Francois Dumas/Radio-Canada)

Difficult times for families

“At the moment, we do not have access to [videoconferences]. It’s been like two and a half years since we last saw each other, it’s hard for the person on the inside as well as the person on the outside,” Nancy said.

“It’s starting to get a little inhuman,” she added. “I can understand why he’s there and everything, but I can’t understand why they keep us from seeing each other like this.”

“It’s extremely difficult,” Laura said. “There is a lot of tension between us […] a phone relationship makes no sense.”

“Relatives are often forgotten or sometimes used as tools for reintegration, but not really seen as people who are also going through very difficult situations,” said Lehalle, who interviewed many relatives of inmates as part of his research.

“We have thousands of people incarcerated in Canada, that means we have thousands of people who have loved ones behind bars,” Lehalled said. “With the pandemic, all of these families are even more worried about those who are incarcerated.”

In addition to the wait, the uncertainty and conflicting information they receive adds to the distress.

“They always give us hope only to end up being disappointed,” Nancy said. “At some point, it becomes demoralizing.”