The Effects of COVID-19 on the Incarceration System
Posted on March 11, 2022
Joyceville Institution Kingston Ontario | Image Credit: CSC
Over the last couple of years, COVID-19 has forced our society to adapt to a new normal. We moved all socializing to online formats, we implemented social distancing measures, and we started wearing PPE. All in the hopes of keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe. But not everyone had the same privilege and access to resources that allowed our daily lives to continue in a new way. As this pandemic banded our society together, there was one group of people who, as they often are, were looked over. As we fought for adequate safety equipment in seniors homes, hospitals and other close-quarter living arrangements, we seemed to have excluded those living and working in incarceration institutions. Those within the incarceration system are often looked over and dismissed as there is a stigma embedded into our society that leads us to believe that these are individuals undeserving of our compassion or attention. Thus, we don’t often think to learn or talk about their lived experiences. So, in hopes of bettering my understanding of the experience within the incarceration system here in Canada, I reached out to someone who had not only experienced it, but also was a vital part of the system.
Kevin Belanger is currently a federal inmate serving the rest of his time on full parole. During the six years he spent at Joyceville Institution in Kingston Ontario, he served as the Inmate Committee Chairman. When I asked Belanger what that role entailed, he described the position as the “liaison between the population, and management”. Thus, when COVID-19 shut down the institution, and other inmates had questions and concerns, Belanger found himself having to relay what little information they did have, and ease concerns to the best of his abilities. Though, this would have been a challenge because of how little information he had access to. As he describes it, the information being relayed to inmates was often updated more than once a day due to the uncertainty of the situation. While the rest of the world was trying to keep up with this evolving pandemic, and restrictions here in Ontario were being constantly changed, the same was happening within institutions. Belanger says, “[i]t was just the same as it was in the community, only it was just ten fold. A minimum security place became a medium security place overnight”. Only they were not operating with the full force of the Canadian government on their side. In fact, at one point Belanger recalls, “watching the TV and the federal opposition party member before Mr. O’toole, stood up in the house and said that he did not support federal inmates getting masks” thus reinforcing the fact that all of their protocols were coming from within the incarceration system itself.
When I inquired about what daily life was like once the pandemic hit Belanger said, “[i]nstead of all of us being out from seven in the morning until ten thirty, except for counts. We went down to, at one time, we were only out an hour and a half a day each covid. So in the hour and a half you could do laundry, call your family, get some fresh air and do what you needed to do. But when you’re used to being out say thirteen, fourteen hours a day – wow”. So, while we were adapting to online learning and zoom meetings, those inside were having to prioritize fresh air, talking to their loved ones, and laundry. Which seems like an impossible situation to have to face, yet conditions inside were not being relayed to the public with the same urgency as other facets of the pandemic. While we were watching newscasts featuring teachers having to learn how to teach kindergarten online, there were inmates, their loved ones and advocates trying to find a way to catch the attention of government officials who were not responding with adequate concern to the conditions inside.
Since his release, Belanger has been advocating for inmates to have their own voice in decisions that are being made for those within the incarceration system. When I asked him to further elaborate on this he said, “[i]t took them 125 years to realize that the natives need their own voice and it took them 125 years to realize you don’t know what every society is like till you live it. So please don’t think you know what our society is like unless you lived it. If you want to learn, then you ask us. You want to see where changes can be made? We should be a part of it.”
What I took away most from my conversation with Belanger was the idea that inmates, correctional facilities management teams, and government officials do not need to be working against one another. Rather, they should be focused on working together to create a stronger, more effective corrections system. And as a public, we should be finding ways to support this facet of society rather than ignore it. In my perspective, the only way to do this is to educate ourselves and to start conversations. What I found the most unsettling about the information I learned in my sit down with Belanger, was how little I had known about any of this. How little coverage these situations get from media outlets because of the stigma around the people it affects. Thus, I implore you to take the time and read some more about what Belanger has to say on the topic, and learn about this situation from those who have experienced it first hand.
This article will be a part of a two-part series on this topic; my next piece will focus on the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project and the work they have done to advocate for the voices of inmates.