Human Right’s Groups, Prisoner, File Federal Human Rights Challenge – re:COVID-19

Toronto/Fraser Valley – The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Canadian Prison Law Association (CPLA), HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO), and current federal prisoner Sean Johnston today filed a constitutional and human rights challenge against the Government of Canada, to compel it to take proactive steps to ensure prisoners’ safety in the context of COVID-19. This includes the timely release of federal prisoners, with precedence for those who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age or underlying health conditions.

Federal institutions in the Fraser Valley include Matsqui, Pacific, Mountain and Kent.

In their argument:

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) has a legal duty to take all reasonable steps to provide a safe environment for prisoners. While public health authorities in Canada direct physical distancing to reduce the spread of the virus, physical distancing cannot be achieved in prisons without reducing the prison population.

Like long-term care facilities and homeless shelters, correctional facilities are congregate living environments. Recent experience has tragically demonstrated how quickly COVID-19 outbreaks occur within these environments, and how difficult they are to contain. To date, nearly 600 federal prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, and two federal prisoners have already died as a result of these outbreaks. The rate of infection within federal prisons is significantly higher than in the population at large.

Sean Johnston, who is serving a life sentence at Warkworth (Ontario) Penitentiary and has numerous health conditions, has applied for parole, been assessed as posing a low risk if released, and has a release plan including a private residence. In his words, “Physical distancing measures in prison have been grossly inadequate. Some of us remain double-bunked and cannot achieve physical distancing within our own cells, let alone throughout the institution. While I await my hearing, I am gravely concerned about the possibility of contracting COVID-19, particularly given my underlying health conditions.”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is a national non-partisan, non-profit organization that works to protect the rights and freedoms of all people in Canada. 

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network promotes the human rights of people living with, at risk of, or affected by HIV or AIDS, in Canada and internationally.

The Canadian Prison Law Association (CPLA) is an organization of lawyers who work on behalf of prisoners, and who seek to protect and promote the constitutional rights, interests and privileges of prisoners by advocating on their behalf within the community and in their dealings with prison and release authorities.

The HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO is a community-based legal clinic that provides free legal services for people living with HIV or AIDS in Ontario, Canada.

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