The air in one inmate’s cell was so filthy, he coated his nose with gobs of Vaseline to keep dust out.

Another detainee came down with COVID-19 last week and has now been held in solitary confinement for nearly a week without permission to wash his clothes. He says he’s been coughing up blood. Staff at the detention centre gave him Tylenol.

One prisoner says communication between the inmates has been cut off as everyone in the facility is being held in their own cells all day. They’re only allowed out to bathe.

These are not the stories of some ramshackle jail halfway around the world. This is happening to undocumented migrants at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre, where three of 15 inmates have contracted the coronavirus.


“Marlon” has been on a hunger strike since Feb. 15 and says he won’t eat until the detainees are released. He tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week and claims medical staff aren’t taking his illness seriously.

“I’ve seen guards cough and sneeze with no mask and without washing their hands,” said Marlon, in a statement released by Solidarity Across Borders on Tuesday. “My fundamental rights are being violated. Among them, my right to health.”

Canada stopped deporting undocumented migrants at the beginning of the pandemic last year but there are still 151 people detained in facilities across the country, according to the Canada Border Services Agency. That’s about half as many prisoners as there were before the pandemic began last year.

“This is a matter of life and death.”

“The CBSA officers are asked to focus efforts on exploring viable alternatives to detention for all cases, where there is no public safety concern,” said agency spokesperson Louis-Carl Brissette Lesage.

Brisette Lesage added that the detainees with COVID-19 are in “good health” and that CBSA is practicing sanitary measures approved by the Quebec government. In regards to the hunger strike, he says the agency is “monitoring the situation closely.”

“We cannot compel an individual to eat, nor can we order the feeding of a detainee who has the ability to understand the consequences of fasting,” Brissette Lesage said.

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Solidarity Across Borders is calling on the agency to release all its detainees because of the risk of an outbreak of the deadly virus in their detention centres.

“This is a matter of life and death,” said Mostafa Henaway, an organizer with the Immigrant Workers Centre. “This hunger strike exposes the constant punishment precarious workers face during this pandemic. They’re made to be disposable.”

One detainee spoke of being swindled by a recruiter, who lured him into working on an illegal cannabis grow operation. “Pedro” says he was shown a forged cannabis licence and told the operation was above board but, when it was raided by police last October, he found out he’d been duped.

He’s been in the Laval detention centre since then, and last week he tested positive for COVID-19.

“Over the course of the past few weeks, we’d seen guards who looked sick,” said Pedro, in a statement provided to reporters Tuesday. “They were handing out masks without gloves, some guards lowered their masks in the common room, it hasn’t been easy. We’ve been kept in isolation, they don’t let us wash our clothes, they make us change rooms without warning.

Overcrowding and poor protective measures have made detention centres a breeding ground for the coronavirus.

“We’re being watched 24 hours a day.… I’ve heard that everyone else at the facility is in solitary confinement, which makes me sad. Communications with the others have been cut off.”

Overcrowding and poor protective measures have made detention centres a breeding ground for the coronavirus. Earlier this month, Montreal’s Bordeaux jail reported nearly 100 cases of COVID-19 within its walls, forcing prisoners to live in isolation.

“They don’t give a shit about you in there. I was having an angina attack and the guard told me, ‘Once you keel over, we’ll come pick you up,’” said Francis Paquette, who was released from Bordeaux on Jan. 26. “Angina attack is a symptom of COVID-19 and after I tested positive for the virus, I had five attacks in 14 days.

“They won’t send you to the hospital. They were supposed to check my blood pressure and my pulse twice a day but when that time came around, they just told me, ‘We don’t have time.’”

Paquette says he needed to send a lawyer’s letter to Bordeaux to get access to his medication. He was serving a two-year sentence for violating the terms of his medical cannabis growing licence.

The hunger strike at Laval comes almost one year after a similar action proved successful last March. “Abdoul” says he lost 22 pounds before being released from the detention centre.

“I was dizzy, my head hurt and it took the help of my comrades to get around the building but it needed to be done,” said Abdoul in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “What I’ve heard from those inside the facility right sends chills down my spine.”

“It hasn’t gotten better at all.”

Abdoul says that during his detention, he learned to coat his nostrils with petroleum jelly to keep from getting dust in his lungs as he slept.

“There is terrible ventilation in there, it’s not safe and especially not during a pandemic. How I would describe the situation is one of total despair. You’re cut off from everything and everyone and you feel so completely powerless.

“My heart goes out to those who were left behind.”

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