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Rights groups say Montreal inmate's COVID-19 death highlights need for action


MONTREAL — A woman who filed a complaint in March with the Quebec ombudsman's office on behalf of a 72-year-old detainee in a Montreal jail says she believes his death this week from COVID-19 could have been prevented.

Catherine Lizotte, 30, said Thursday she found out Robert Langevin's health was deteriorating from her partner, who was jailed alongside Langevin at Bordeaux detention centre, a provincial jail in the north end of the city.

She said her partner collected Langevin's testimony from inside the jail and she then forwarded his complaint to the ombudsman's office on March 27. He died on Tuesday after contracting COVID-19 in jail.

"Of course [his death] could have been avoided," Lizotte told The Canadian Press, adding that she never got a response from the ombudsman.

"They could have given him medical care when he needed it. They could have just released him."

Langevin's death has drawn criticism from rights groups and the families of other detainees, who are calling on Quebec to release prisoners to stem the spread of COVID-19 inside crowded jails.

About 2 per cent of detainees in provincial jails have been infected with COVID-19, according to Quebec government figures.

A spokeswoman for the Quebec ombudsman’s office, which handles complaints related to government departments and services, including detention centres, said she could not comment on the case for reasons of confidentiality.

"I can't confirm or deny whether we received a complaint," Carole-Anne Huot said.

Quebec's Public Security Department said it was unable to comment on the complaint Thursday.

The complaint states that Langevin had open-heart surgery in 2018, was taking antibiotics and used an oxygen mask.

"I don't want to die here," it reads. "I'm a human being and I have rights."

Ted Rutland, a member of the Anti-Carceral Group, a Montreal-based prisoners' rights organization, said Langevin was in jail awaiting trial after being charged for selling speed tablets.

Rutland said a majority of the detainees at Bordeaux are there pending trial, and most of them could be released on bail to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

He said vulnerable detainees, such as the elderly, people with health conditions and those awaiting trial, should be prioritized for release.

"Quebec should be doing the most on this front because Quebec is the worst affected by COVID and Quebec's prisons are the worst affected by COVID," Rutland said.

Questioned about the death on Wednesday, Quebec Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault said measures to stem the spread of COVID-19 inside provincial jails are in place.

"Of course, we cannot avoid all cases because those are [close living quarters]," Guilbault told reporters.

Public Security Department spokeswoman Marie-Josee Montminy said in an email that 60 inmates at Bordeaux are currently infected with COVID-19. She said Guilbault issued an order on May 6 to allow vulnerable prisoners and those who had less than 30 days left on their sentence to be released.

But Jean-Louis Nguyen, whose partner is currently detained at Bordeaux, said too few detainees meet the criteria for release.

Nguyen also said not enough detainees are being tested for COVID-19, and he criticized the Bordeaux detention centre for placing prisoners in solitary confinement to try to stem the spread of the virus.

While his partner tested negative for COVID-19 this month, Nguyen said he has a chronic health condition and problems with his bladder that could still put him at risk.

"The death [this week] is really troubling,” he said. “It was like proof that there’s a lack of transparency and a lack of concern, too, for the health of those who are behind bars.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2020

Jillian Kestler-D'Amours, The Canadian Press

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