Ottawa jail inmates argue anti-COVID measures a breach of charter rights

TORONTO — Nine inmates of a provincial jail in Ottawa have gone to court to argue they are being subjected to egregious conditions due to COVID-19 that violate their constitutional rights and international law.

The application filed in Superior Court, accuses authorities at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre of putting dangerously lax health measures in place and imposing oppressive restrictions as part of the fight against the pandemic.

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"This is an egregious diminution of liberties being imposed in an already restrictive environment," their hand-written application states. "These impositions are tyrannical and dehumanizing."

Upholding human rights should remain paramount even during a pandemic, the inmates say. They also point out the majority of the inmates are awaiting trial and are presumed innocent.

The applicants want the court to declare their rights have been breached and to order the government to take remedial action.

Among other things, the applicants say they have been deprived of outside visitors, a crucial way to maintain contact with loved ones and community supports, since March 10. International law, they say, requires regular visits.

The prisoners allege guards did not wear masks until April 25, and that since then, correctional officers have worn face coverings irregularly, risking the inmates' health. Nor has the prison provided masks, sanitizer or soap to prisoners, the complaint alleges.

They also say they've been cut off from religious services, dental care and various treatment programs.

"Although the applicant understands how volatile the situation has been, COVID-19 is not a justifiable excuse for the restrictions imposed during the pandemic," the document states.

The court action alleges that correctional staff only set up a quarantine on April 25. Until then, new inmates were simply placed with the others.

Michael Wiwczaruk, one of the nine inmates, said it's impossible to understand the impact of the anti-COVID measures without experiencing them first-hand.

"The psychological stress caused by the increased risk to contract COVID-19 while in pre-trial detention cannot be overstated," the application states.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. However, the ministry has previously argued that it has taken steps to protect inmates in part by allowing some to leave jails.

Other inmates, along with civil rights groups, have previously filed suit against the federal government alleging "grossly inadequate" measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in penitentiaries. Federally, about 360 inmates have tested positive and two have died.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission has previously urged correctional authorities to release low-risk inmates and to ensure both the health and human rights of prisoners are a priority.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 2, 2020.

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