Canadian prison officials say they are adopting an existing flu-outbreak plan in preparation for the novel coronavirus outbreak that is sweeping across the country.
Correctional Service Canada says it wants the prisoners' family and friends to avoid its institutions should they be sick and to consider other ways of communicating with loved ones, such as a video visitation or by telephone.
"CSC has considerable experience managing influenza outbreaks and the requirements for managing COVID-19 are similar," spokeswoman Martine Rondeau said in an email to The Canadian Press.
Rondeau said there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in CSC institutions, but noted the service will comply "with requirements set by public health authorities, which could include an institution being quarantined."
In Ontario, the provincial government announced late Friday it was barring personal visits to inmates in its adult provincial jails, allowing only professional visits, such as from prisoners' lawyers. Offenders serving their sentences on weekends will also see their restrictions loosened.
Experts and prisoner advocates have expressed concerns for the health of the highly vulnerable prisoner population.
Martha Paynter, a nurse who also researches prisoner health as part of her doctoral studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said prisons and jails are "petri dishes" where disease spreads quickly and inmates can do little to isolate themselves for protection.
"People who are inside cannot easily get away from others, there is poor ventilation, little time outside and a lack of hygiene products," she said. "It is considered contraband to have access to alcohol-based substances like hand sanitizer. They're lucky to get a bar of soap. It's terrifying."
James Bloomfield, president of the Prairies region for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said the panic over COVID-19 has crept inside the institutions.
"It gets pretty complicated when you start housing hundreds of people together," he said. "We're at the stage now where we're trying to look at all of our protective equipment, gloves, masks, making sure we've got enough of that type of stuff, disinfectants."
He said the constant flow of visitors, workers and medical staff leave the institution vulnerable to infection.
"We can't isolate everyone either," he said from Winnipeg. "We've got 800 people at Stony Mountain (Institution) for example and when you start trying to isolate, it's impossible."
"If it does get in we're going to be bringing it home, the officers bringing it home to their families."
About a third of inmates in Canada are housed in federal institutions with the remainder in provincial jails, where those on sentences of two years less a day mix with those awaiting trial who are presumed innocent.
Toronto criminal defence lawyer Daniel Brown said it's only a matter of time before an inmate contracts the virus. He's worried for his clients.
"There's no way the jails can address the health concerns raised by a pandemic — they don't have the facilities, they don't have the ability to self-isolate," he said. "Jails are overcrowded and underfunded. The staff aren't equipped to deal with a crisis like this."
A spokeswoman for Ontario's Ministry of Solicitor General that oversees the jails said no one has tested positive for COVID-19 in the province's jails.
"If an outbreak of any communicable disease occurs or is suspected, institution officials take immediate precautionary measures in accordance with operating procedures, including notifying the local medical officer of health, and provincial health professionals," said Kristy Denette.
"Inmates may be isolated if required, and medical attention and treatment is provided."
Paynter said she was also worried about inmates' mental health.
"This is also an anxiety epidemic," she said, adding that inmate populations have high rates of mental health afflictions.
"People who are inside are not able to easily contact their families. They don't' have unlimited cellphone plans to call their mom and kid," she said. "That's how we outside institutions are going to cope. We can cope with social distancing because of technology. It's the opposite in jails or prisons."
Deadly riots recently broke out in Italian prisons after visitors were banned while the country deals with a COVID-19 outbreak that has so far sickened over 17,000 people,including at least 1,266 deaths.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2020.
Liam Casey and Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press