NUPGE STATEMENT: Fighting COVID-19 in Adult and Youth Correctional Facilities

The urgency of COVID-19 is something the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) takes very seriously because inmates are living in an environment in which our members work.

Ottawa (30 March 2020) — The coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) is the most serious global health crisis in living memory. In the midst of this outbreak in Canada, it is critical that we pay close attention to the specific and extraordinarily intense challenges for 2 populations: the prison population, with its overcrowding and disproportionate disease burden, and the correctional workers who are charged with their supervision and care.

The urgency of COVID-19 is something NUPGE takes very seriously because inmates are living in an environment in which our members work.

According Larry Brown, President of NUPGE, we must not lose sight of the gravity of the situation: “Long before this COVID-19 pandemic, the adult and youth correctional facilities in Canada were already suffering a crisis of violence and understaffing, and a lack of adequate medical services,” said Brown. “Unless we do something about it, the coronavirus will only make matters worse, but not just for prisons. So we need to act now.” 

Preventing and controlling the spread of infection in correctional facilities is not simply one public policy option among many: it is essential if we are to prevent large outbreaks of COVID-19 beyond the prison walls.

According to WHO/Europe, people deprived of their liberty, and those living or working in enclosed environments in close proximity, are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the general population. Moreover, correctional facilities may amplify and enhance COVID-19 transmission outside. That’s why, according to the newly published WHO guidance, the global effort to tackle the spread of the disease may fail without proper attention to infection control measures within prisons.

Governments must recognize that corrections work, which was already dangerous to begin with, is now even more so, because it threatens the lives of workers themselves and the general population. Recognizing that corrections workers are serving the wider public as front-line workers in the containment of this deadly virus, they need the right tools, and the right working conditions to do their work properly.

It is for the sake of public safety as a whole that governments must therefore place a high priority on correctional services by protecting the health, safety, and well-being of all those who live in, work in, and visit these settings.

Governments can do this by ensuring a number of different concrete measures:

  • Ensure that corrections officers are provided high-quality personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Give corrections officers the best possible supplies to regularly disinfect these facilities.
  • Take seriously and address the systematic and rampant overcrowding in corrections facilities, because these are the very conditions that will lead to a rapid spread of the virus.
  • Address the already deplorable health conditions in our prisons populated by large numbers of inmates whose health is already compromised. 
  • Provide compensation and benefits to corrections workers commensurate with the risk associated with their dangerous work. This includes providing free and accessible daycare, and allowing greater flexibility for paid time-off, including sick pay. 
  • Finally, there must be regular and ongoing dialogue among labour unions and prison and health authorities. Governments must work with unions on addressing these problems and finding the best possible solutions. Governments must respect collective agreements and work with unions.

In many prisons, the spread of coronavirus comes on top of the double challenge of prison overcrowding and understaffing, not only for prison officers but also for health care staff. As NUPGE discussed in a 2019 research report, called The Crisis in Provincial Correctional Services: Overcrowding, due to many years of government austerity, there is a serious problem of overcrowding in Canadian prisons. As a result, there has been a steady increase in violence against workers and violence by inmates against other inmates, all directly related to overcrowding. This means that corrections workers were already exposed to extremely unsafe work environments and serious health and safety risks, even before the pandemic.

It is crucial that governments develop contingency plans in close cooperation with the unions to prevent, contain, and deal with the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

At the same time, confined places such as prisons have the possibility to quickly adopt efficient preventive measures and ensure that no one is left behind.

In overcrowded prisons, to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading, it is crucial to anticipate a need for more staffing and compensation to cope with shortages. It is also necessary to consider having discussions with governments about possible plans for the early release of prisoners on short-term sentences who are not deemed dangerous for the rest of the population. In Europe, this has been planned in Ireland, and in Italy, it is one of the demands of some unions.

NUPGE has been coordinating a series of regularly scheduled conference calls with the various sectors it represents to keep abreast of this developing situation.

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE