Advocates want Ottawa to release vulnerable inmates as COVID-19 hits NS women’s prison

Prisoners at the Nova Institution for Women should be considered for early release given the COVID-19 outbreak reported on Tuesday, which has affected about 10 percent of the prison population, a spokesman for the group said.

Corrections Canada said Tuesday that eight inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in Truro Jail.

It’s the biggest outbreak in a Nova Scotia prison since the pandemic began, according to Martha Paynter, president of Wellness Within, a non-profit organization that provides health care advocacy to those in the penitentiary.

The dense residential neighborhoods make it particularly easy for diseases to spread once it gains a foothold, Paynter said. And those who are incarcerated are at risk for more severe outcomes with COVID-19, given research showing that inmates are more likely to suffer from chronic illness.

“In an environment like that, you have no control over your own body,” said Paynter, who is also a registered nurse and health researcher at Dalhousie University.

“You can not say who comes near you … you simply have no control over protecting yourself.”

That is why Paynter and Wellness Within are urging Federal Secretary of Public Safety Marco Mendicino to facilitate the early release of as many inmates as possible.

The organization has also called on the federal penitentiary system to reconsider the practice of incarcerating women who are pregnant or are primary caregivers of children.

“The prison is a very dangerous and scary place in the best of times, and when there’s an uncontrolled infectious disease that is potentially fatal in circulation … it’s completely scary,” Paynter said.

Martha Paynter of Wellness Within says inmates do not have control over who they interact with in prison, which can be particularly frightening during an outbreak. (Paul Palmer / CBC)

While the jail can accommodate up to 90 inmates, Paynter said there are typically about 75 people jailed at a time.

There are three different levels of security, but most inmates live in the general population in groups of eight. Paynter said there is also the possibility of interaction during the daily medication lineup.

The staff must perform daily lightning tests

Corrections Canada said in a press release that it has taken precautions to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, including giving masks to all inmates and staff. Depth cleaning has also been carried out across the plant.

Approximately 90 percent of inmates at the Nova Institution for Women are fully vaccinated, according to the announcement, and Corrections Canada has begun offering third doses to those who received their last vaccine more than five months ago.

Personal visits have been suspended in the prison and staff are required to do a quick test before entering the facility for a shift.

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