VANCOUVER, Coast Salish Territories – Today, 38 human rights, health, prisoner rights, and legal organizations are calling on BC’s Chief Coroner and BC’s Solicitor General to direct an immediate inquest into the tragic death of a man in Correctional Service Canada’s custody at Mission Institution. His death on April 15th is the first reported COVID-related death of a federal prisoner.
In their letter, the 38 provincial and national organizations state, “Amidst a global pandemic, we cannot continue to sit back and watch people die in prison from the ticking time bomb of COVID-19 spreading through these institutions.” The organizations recognize that an inquest is absolutely in the public interest and is a minimum first step to ensure that similar deaths can be prevented.
Section 18(3) of the Coroners Act specifies that the Chief Coroner may direct an inquest if the Chief Coroner has reason to believe that the public has an interest in being informed of the circumstances surrounding the death, or the death resulted from a dangerous practice and similar deaths could be prevented. Section 19(1) of the Coroners Act also stipulates that the Solicitor General may order an inquest if it is necessary or desirable in the public interest.
In their letter to BC’s Chief Coroner and BC’s Solicitor General, the organizations write, “we call on you to direct an inquest to investigate the degree to which this person’s death resulted from the very real danger of prisons having inadequate health and safety measures to deal with the threat of COVID-19. It is imperative that no similar deaths occur and immediate steps are taken to prevent future deaths; incarcerated people should not be getting death sentences.”
Mission Institution is the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak at a federal institution in the country and the second largest outbreak in the province. A staggering total of 106 incarcerated men in Mission Institution have now tested positive for the virus. Outlining a series of institutional failures, including failing to implement COVID-19 transmission prevention measures and failing to provide hygiene supplies, the letter argues there is a strong reason to believe a connection exists between Mission Institution’s failure to provide necessary care and the resulting death due to COVID-19.
The 38 organizations issuing the call for a full, public inquest include: Abolition Coalition, Amnesty International, Atira Women’s Resource Society, BC Assembly of First Nations, BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, BC Civil Liberties Association, BC First Nations Justice Council, BC Health Coalition, BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-BC, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Community Legal Assistance Society, First Nations Summit, Health Justice, Jail Accountability and Information Line, John Howard Society of Canada, Joint Effort, Law Union of British Columbia, PACE Society, Prisoners’ Legal Services, Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Vancouver Prison Justice Day Committee, and West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund.
Aisha Weaver, Policy Director of BC Civil Liberties Association: “We all need to know what happened at Mission Institution and Correctional Service of Canada needs to be held accountable for what will likely be deemed a grossly mismanaged response to COVID-19. Delayed, piece-meal and reactive measures are too little too late. An immediate public inquest is critical to find out the circumstances surrounding this man’s horrific death and to prevent future deaths. Transparent comprehensive measures, based on public health guidelines, and releasing all releasable prisoners are necessary to protect the health of all incarcerated people.”
Jen Metcalfe, Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, “A public Coroner’s inquest is necessary to reveal the broader circumstances that allowed such a tragic death and catastrophic outbreak to happen among this vulnerable population. Canada’s failure to implement public health advice on containing COVID-19 from the outset has put prisoners at risk.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President, Union of BC Indian Chiefs: “A public inquest is essential and the bare minimum to try and find justice from this injustice. We challenge the Governments of BC and Canada to go further in fundamentally changing prison systems and their pandemic responses to prevent further deaths. Canadian prisons remain sites of colonial violence against over-represented Indigenous peoples, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been weaponized against those who are incarcerated.”
Joint Effort: “By identifying the facts and conditions leading to the cause of death of this person in custody, necessary information will come to light for which Correctional Service Canada and all levels of government must be held accountable. CSC has failed to ensure the health and safety of every prisoner, and all levels of government need an immediate plan to reduce the number of people in prisons and jails, making sure that every prisoner has access to income assistance and social supports immediately upon release. Healthy communities flattening the curve of COVID-19 cannot ignore correctional facilities.”
Ayendri Riddell, BC Health Coalition, “Prisoners are part of the public, and prison health is public health. The outbreak in Mission Institution is the second largest outbreak in our province. Our provincial and federal governments and Correctional Service of Canada are failing to adequately protect the health and well-being of people incarcerated in or working in prisons.”
The above statements represent the views of each organization.
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The letter and full list of signatories is available here.
Aisha Weaver, BC Civil Liberties Association: 604-630-9753
Jen Metcalfe, Prisoners’ Legal Services: 604-636-0470
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of BC Indian Chiefs: 250-490-5314
Lora McElhinney, Joint Effort: 604-875-1759
Ayendri Riddell, BC Health Coalition: 604-787-6560