CSC’s response to OCI report ‘Third Status Update on COVID-19 in Federal Corrections’

Dear Dr. Zinger:

I am writing in response to your report dated February 23, 2021 entitled ‘Third Status Update on COVID-19 in Federal Corrections’.

With the second wave of the pandemic, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has been continuing to work very closely and collaboratively with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and local health partners in order to contain the spread of the disease based on their expert advice, guidance and lessons learned.

Unfortunately, there are now mutations or variants of the COVID-19 virus in Canada. In order to keep our institutions free of any form of the virus, unprecedented measures need to be sustained by all parts of Canadian society, including CSC, to respond to COVID-19.

The first and second waves of the pandemic have had a significant impact on federal corrections. As you pointed out, CSC’s pandemic response is evolving as more about the virus is learned and how it can be best avoided or contained in our institutions. As highlighted in your latest report, CSC has:

Moreover, CSC has been keeping families, stakeholders, media and the public informed on the latest COVID-19 developments on the Service’s public facing website. As well, weekly messages from the Commissioner have been providing regular updates to staff and inmates.

In understanding the many pressures the inmate population is experiencing, CSC continues to implement the following in all institutions:

We have learned that this virus is very difficult to contain in closed environments and in certain parts of the country where the community transmission rates are very high. During the first wave, CSC experienced outbreaks impacting inmates at five of its 43 institutions. While there have been additional outbreaks during the second wave, particularly in the Prairies and Ontario Regions, as of this date, there are only two institutions with active cases.

Recommendations

1. In recognition of the undue hardship, unusual circumstances and extraordinary measures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic on the federal inmate population, I recommend that CSC develop and fund a plan that significantly shifts program access and delivery to the community rather than prison. This approach is consistent with evidence-based research, which suggests that the same programs delivered in the community yield better outcomes than those delivered in prison.

The Service acknowledges that, due to the pandemic, it has been increasingly difficult to deliver programming in both community and institutional settings. Public health measures have limited the availability of community resources and partners during this unprecedented time. However, programming remains part of community reintegration and CSC has continued to find ways to navigate these challenges.

With the resumption of group correctional programs in July 2020, and the implementation of a colour-coded Integrated Risk Management Framework (IRMF), temporary changes to the management and delivery of correctional programs were introduced to meet the needs of the offenders.

Subject to public health and operational realities, CSC has promoted alternative program delivery methods such as the use of video conferencing. The Service has also prioritized high-risk offenders and those approaching their release; reallocated resources temporarily, when possible; to better position either the institution or the community to meet the program needs of offenders; and utilized Correctional and Indigenous Program Officers from the institution to support program delivery in the community when possible.

CSC is rapidly working to establish a sustainable, virtual approach to deliver correctional programs. It is anticipated that this project will assist the Service in meeting offender programs needs, especially during this pandemic period.

2. I recommend that CSC collaborate with the Parole Board of Canada on early and prioritized release of elderly and medically compromised inmates who pose no undue risk to society.

Since the first wave, CSC has continued to collaborate with the Parole Board of Canada to ensure efficient and effective case preparation and conditional release reviews to safely release offenders that do not pose an undue risk to society including those who are elderly or have an underlying medical condition (identified by Health Services).

In order to support necessary public health measures in institutions and the safety of the public, a Case Management Bulletin was issued in April 2020 that directed Case Management Teams to review their current cases for parole to determine whether their risk is manageable with the appropriate home environment and community supports. Moreover, a streamlined case preparation process was implemented as an interim measure to accelerate the case preparation for Parole Board of Canada reviews and to facilitate early discretionary releases.

Between October 4, 2020 and January 21, 2021, a total of 603 offenders who met the lower risk or vulnerable health criteria have been released.

3. I recommend that CSC develop and immediately make public its plans and priorities for a national inmate vaccination strategy.

Vaccines are a critical way to limit the spread of the virus. Just as we have all adopted rigorous public health measures to limit the spread of the virus, vaccination is key to further protecting everyone.

Under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA), CSC has an obligation to provide essential health care to inmates. We consider vaccinating the inmate population as soon as vaccine availability permits to be a component of this obligation.

Consistent with previous practices, CSC is committed to following the National Advisory Committee recommendations on Immunization (NACI). NACI is an independent group of experts who provide advice to provinces and territories on vaccine priorities and schedules, including COVID-19. To this effect, there are different phases in terms of who gets the vaccine and when, based on established guidelines (NACI).

At this time, as per the NACI guidelines, CSC has vaccinated approximately 600 older offenders prioritized by age and underlying medical conditions. Phase 2 priority groups include all staff and residents of congregate living environments, such as correctional institutions. In addition to inmates, CSC continues to work closely with PHAC, the provinces and local public health authorities to facilitate institutional staff’s access to vaccination clinics, in keeping with NACI Phase 2 priorities.

We will continue to follow the NACI guidelines and work with our public health partners to support the timely allocation, distribution and administration of the vaccine for offenders under our care as efficiently, equitably and effectively as possible. CSC will publish updates online as soon as they become available.

4. I recommend that CSC immediately release the results of external infection prevention and control audits/inspections that have been conducted at each penitentiary.

CSC recognized early on that the closed institutional setting of the correctional environment, like long-term care homes, presented particular challenges for containing COVID-19. This required ongoing work with public health and infection prevention and control experts to ensure we were doing everything possible to mitigate introduction or spread of the virus.

During the first wave, CSC worked closely with the PHAC, local public health departments, the Canadian Red Cross, and community experts to conduct Infection and Prevention Control (IPC) assessments at all 43 institutions , and, where feasible, additional environmental and occupational health (EOH) assessments.

An important outcome of the implementation of IPC assessments is that it has allowed CSC to harness the IPC and EOH expertise from PHAC and other community experts. This has helped CSC strengthen current IPC policies and procedures, as well as help build internal IPC/EOH capacity for the future. Furthermore, the IPC and EOH assessments have helped us gain a better understanding of current practices at individual sites, in order to identify site-specific needs and areas for improvement. In conjunction with these assessments, all of CSC IPC policies have been reviewed by PHAC, ensuring that all of our national policies are consistent with PHAC’s IPC guidance and recommendations, as well as the current available evidence on COVID-19.

PHAC reviewed all IPC/EOH and produced a summary for public release. As soon as this work is complete, CSC will publish the document on its website. CSC is committed to making the results of these assessments public as they become available.

5. I recommend that the Minister of Public Safety examine alternatives to incarceration, and address the failings of Canada’s aging, antiquated and costly federal prisons. Beyond the impacts of COVID-19, a more rigorous, humane and cost-effective community-based approach to corrections is long over-due. With more than 3,800 cells sitting empty across the country (equivalent to seven average size penitentiaries), the timing is now to reallocate staff and resources to better support safe, timely and healthy community reintegration and to examine the gradual closing of some aging and antiquated penitentiaries.

CSC proactively monitors population trends and institutional capacity to ensure effective allocation of resources and contribute to future planning. There has been a consistent annual reduction in the in-custody population, more recently accelerated by the pandemic. Under current circumstances, additional institutional capacity is needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in federal facilities. Practices such as medical isolation, distanced movements, and contact tracing are much more challenging, if not impossible, when our facilities are at full capacity.

Examinations of institutional capacity should be undertaken after the pandemic has safely passed and when Canadian society, courts and subsequent admissions to federal custody have returned to pre-pandemic levels.

CSC is implementing a multi-year national community accommodation plan, to be updated quarterly by National Headquarters, which identifies current population profiles, projected upcoming releases, and available accommodation capacity. Accommodation gaps to be identified by regions will be based on national mapping of needs vs. bed capacity. CSC has also initiated the development of a comprehensive solution for both bed-inventory management and the matching of offenders to community facilities (including waitlists), focusing on vulnerable and unique populations such as aging offenders and women offenders.

Funding mechanisms are available to provide support, such as the National Infrastructure Contribution Program (for physical infrastructure projects to facilities), and the yearly Quasi-Statutory Requirements Treasury Board Submission to seek Community-based residential facilities funding for changes in price and volume.

Conclusion

In conclusion, my latest weekly message to inmates and staff stated, “we must continue efforts to follow our infection and prevention measures.” CSC employees, whether they are in institutions or in communities are working under exceptional circumstances to protect the safety, health and well-being of everyone and we recognize the need to continue these extraordinary efforts.

Sincerely,

Anne Kelly
Commissioner

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