16 April 2020 – During the past few weeks, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has claimed the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) and the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) have been putting together a plan to release federal prisoners to prevent the spread of COVID-19 behind and beyond bars. In the span of time that Minister Blair and his deputy ministers pushed paper, dozens of organizations formed the Abolition Coalition. A day after this new coalition’s #DontKillBill Tweet storm trended online, CSC released a statement to journalists claiming they were still studying their options. While Minister Blair was missing in action yesterday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put on a master class in deflection during his daily press conference, claiming his government was “still looking at other steps” to keep prisoners and prison staff members “more safe from COVID-19”. More talk, still no action.
In response to the lack of response from the government to reasonable demands to release as many federal prisoners as possible, advocates are demanding that those at the Pause Patrol table stop dancing to the pup-up boogie in their Ottawa bubble lookout, pull-out their pup pads and answer the call of thousands of Canadians demanding action. Poet, activist and scholar El Jones explains why the Pause Patrol needs to get to work:
“Despite the growing crisis in penitentiaries across the country like Mission, Grand Valley, Joliette, the Federal Training Centre and Port Cartier, Trudeau and Blair keep saying they’re “considering” early releases, “looking at other steps”, or will have an update soon where they’ll update us again about future updates. These are all just other words for condemning prisoners – many of whom are Indigenous, Black, people living with disabilities or mental illness or are from impoverished communities – to be infected or die from inaction. Sadly, even toddlers understand that “no job is too big”, yet the people with the most power in this country continue to pause and think small, instead of saving lives”.
From prisoners and their loved ones to doctors and public health experts, there has been no shortage of people who have sounded the alarm about a looming COVID-19 disaster behind prison walls over the past few weeks, which is now unfolding. Many provinces and territories have recognized this and started reducing their prison populations. Souheil Benslimane, Coordinator of the Jail Accountability & Information Line and former federal prisoner, urges federal officials to follow suit, instead of getting bogged down in theoretical discussions:
“Some have asked how far should the federal government go where releasing prisoners is concerned? Over the long-term, we should be moving towards a just transition from the prison industrial complex and ending our reliance on surveilling, criminalizing, caging, maiming, and killing human beings. In the short-term, however, the question that should be asked is what will it take for the federal government to even reduce its prison population by a few thousand prisoners like Ontario has done as a starting point? This could be done immediately. Are Canadians really all that concerned about releasing most criminalized women who now face the violence of incarceration in addition to patriarchy and, in many cases, racism? Are they concerned about geriatric and chronically ill prisoners who are on or near their deathbeds being able to live their final days with dignity? Are they concerned about keeping people locked-up that have been criminalized as part of the failed war on drugs that’s taken so many lives? Do they really want to subject people who are eventually going to be let out to potential COVID-19 exposure – people who’ll remember how they were treated during this pandemic, but will be forced to carry-on as-if they hadn’t experienced grave injustices? Whether in the short- or long-term, the Canadian carceral state needs to shrink its footprint towards extinction alongside efforts to build safer communities and transformative justice capacity. That work should begin now before more human beings become ill and lives are senselessly lost”.
Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land of Bar None in Winnipeg remains perplexed about the uncharacteristic unwillingness to act on the part of Minister Blair. She explains:
Bill Blair has long presented himself as a man of action, as was the case when he played a central role in overseeing and defending the use of force, kettlings, and mass arrests of protesters and bystanders during the June 2010 G20 summit in Toronto as the city’s police chief. Fast forward to today and years removed from one of the most significant concentration of human rights violations in recent memory in this country, Minister Blair is missing in action and seemingly willing to run out the pandemic clock as COVID-19 spreads behind federal penitentiary walls and in prison towns.
Prisons kill on a ‘normal’ day and Minister Blair’s inaction, along with his deputies CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly and PBC Chair Jennifer Oades runs the risk of contributing to premature deaths at this critical time. The Abolition Coalition remains steadfast in its message to Minister Blair – #DontKillBill, #ReleaseSavesLives, #CleanOutPrisons now! If action is not taken in the days ahead, Prime Minister Trudeau needs to #DisbandThePausePatrol and bring a new sheriff in town to clean-up the mess unfolding in penitentiary bay.