COVID-19 exacerbates ‘filthy and inhumane’ conditions in Montreal jail

Pandemic provides ‘perfect pretext’ to stop services to inmates, says critic
Photo: Bordeaux Prison, Montreal. By Pymouss.
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One inmate went 22 days without a shower, hot water or clean sheets to sleep in.

Another says he has so many mice in his cell that he’s named and adopted them. An inmate who tested positive for COVID-19 told me he was so weak he defecated in his pants and was subsequently refused a shower or change of clothes.

Now, after another COVID outbreak at Montreal’s Bordeaux Prison, most prisoners spend nearly 24 hours a day in their cell with little contact with the outside world.

These “filthy and inhumane” conditions have sparked rumours that inmates will coordinate acts of civil disobedience to raise awareness of their plight as they did during the first wave of the pandemic.

Bordeaux is chronically overcrowded, in part because about 75 per cent of its detainees serve a sentence shorter than three months.

“We’re human beings, not animals. And I doubt very much that animals would be treated this way,” said Yanick Gionet, who served time at Bordeaux in 2020. “When the pandemic first hit, things got so desperate that inmates set whatever they could on fire and busted the plumbing in their cells to make a point. There was a hunger strike, which isn’t something you undertake unless you’re deadly serious.”

Gionet was locked up when 96 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 and another died of the virus in the spring of 2020. Back then, some prisoners had no access to masks or other personal protective equipment, which also led to 39 staff at Bordeaux catching the coronavirus.

Last month, officials at Bordeaux reported 118 new cases, leading them to lock down more than 1,000 inmates in their cells for abnormally long stretches of time. Inmate transfers, AA meetings and other rehabilitation programs were also suspended.

“I can almost understand the clumsy response to COVID when it first arrived. We were all learning on the fly,” said Alexandra Paquette, a lawyer with clients inside the prison. “But when you have clients who today, two years into the pandemic, are being quarantined for over three weeks without clean sheets, clean clothes or a shower, there’s no excuse for that.”

A prison official said there are now fewer than 50 active cases among the prison’s 1,030 detainees.

One expert in criminology says the pandemic has laid bare the abysmal state of Quebec’s carceral system. A facility like Bordeaux is chronically overcrowded, in part because about 75 per cent of its detainees serve a sentence shorter than three months. Most are not violent criminals. They’re people who have substance use disorders and serious mental health crises, people who could use a helping hand instead of a stint behind bars.

Bordeaux, Quebec’s largest detention centre, doesn’t have a psychologist on staff.

“They’re not being rehabilitated, they’re just being warehoused for a while — long enough to catch an extremely contagious illness — and tossed back onto the streets,” said Jean Claude Bernheim, a former lecturer in criminology at Université Laval. “Why even incarcerate someone for such a short period? There are no rehabilitation programs for any sentence under six months. So if they’re not being rehabilitated, what exactly is the point of keeping them behind bars?”

Another contributing factor to the outbreaks may be that the administration of medical care inside Bordeaux isn’t the responsibility of Quebec’s health ministry and is left to the prison itself. This despite a 2003 recommendation from the Quebec Coroner that inmate healthcare be transferred to the Ministry of Health and Social Services. That recommendation came up again last week after yet another coroner released a damning investigation into suicides in the province’s jails, reiterating the need for access to quality healthcare.

The coroner, Karine Spénard, looked at five suicides and found that, in each case, “alarming signs were ignored, forgotten or simply omitted.” Spénard highlighted the fact that Bordeaux, Quebec’s largest detention centre, doesn’t have a psychologist on staff. On the day of one suicide, guards falsified records to say they’d checked in on prisoners when security footage clearly showed they had not.

“There’s a staffing shortage, you have to give the guards that much, they have a huge workload,” Bernheim said. “But the biggest problem is that there’s no accountability built into the system. These coroner recommendations? We saw the same ones published 20 years ago and nothing changed. We’ll see them again in 15 years when more people die inside.

“People do what they want to prisoners because there’s no one to stop them. Now, with the pandemic, there’s the perfect pretext to give almost no services to these prisoners. You keep them locked up almost 24 hours a day, you feed them and you wait. There’s no motivation for guards or the prison to spend any time helping the inmates who have psychological problems or addiction problems. There’s no incentive to try to make the inmates return to society as better people.”

For Gionet, the pandemic made for “long, long days” inside his five-by-ten-foot cell. He says aside from a small corkboard where he kept pictures of his children, he had neon-lit walls to stare at and people’s screams to listen to. Some of the wings at Bordeaux are over 100 years old and inmates describe layers of peeling paint, inadequate ventilation and cockroaches everywhere.

“The visitor’s room, which is the cleanest in the prison, had an infestation,” said Paquette. “So you can imagine the rest of the facility.”

Gionet described his time inside as “merely surviving.”

“We got our meals, which were often cold, and we waited for the worst of the pandemic to pass,” said Gionet, who was incarcerated for trafficking cocaine. “I caught COVID-19 pretty fast and it was brutal. Knocked me on my ass for days. You’re alone, away from your kids, there’s no more visitation and you can’t talk to any of them on the phone because you can’t leave your cell.

“For the worst three weeks of the pandemic, we had no connection to the outside world. Only some radio reports. That’s it. So you’re listening to news about this deadly pandemic, not knowing if your loved ones are okay, not knowing what’s going to happen. And your family doesn’t know how you’re doing either. Eventually, we were each allowed to make one 2-minute phone call on a cell phone they passed from cell to cell.”

“It was traumatic, it was terrifying, but mostly it was just wrong.”

At his lowest, Gionet spent an entire day in his bed, so weak from the coronavirus that he defecated in his pants. He used cold tap water to wash himself the next day because showers and hot water were still off limits. The first shower came weeks later, when he was transferred to another wing. They give him five minutes to wash off weeks’ worth of filth. Even so, Gionet made the best of his time inside.

“I wanted my sentence to be about bettering myself,” said Gionet. “I kept busy reading self-help books, maybe a few dozen of those during my stay, and I worked with other inmates to secure better terms for ourselves. I never want to end up back in prison. Ever.”

After being released, Gionet earned his Class 1 driver’s licence, and he now runs his own long-haul trucking business. He drives from Montreal to Vancouver, doing everything he can to support his family while keeping on the straight and narrow.

“I worked in a restaurant for nearly a year, worked for minimum wage, all while learning how to become a truck driver,” he said. “It was a long, hard road but it’s something to be proud of. Now, I think we need to turn our attention to those who are still inside. I don’t want others to go through what we did.

“It was traumatic, it was terrifying, but mostly it was just wrong.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet.

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