Across Canada, we are seeing another spike in COVID-19 cases in prisons.

 “Since December, we have seen more COVID-19 cases inside prisons than in the preceding eight months and infection rates for prisoners are staggeringly higher than the infection rate in Canada.”

This is the opening statement of a letter addressed to Minister Blair (Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness), Commissioner Kelly (Correctional Service of Canada), and Chairperson Oades (Parole Board of Canada) last week highlighted the escalation of COVID-19 in prisons. Signed by a coalition of researchers, advocates, service providers, and legal professionals – including JHS Canada – the open letter calls for changes to Canada’s response to the pandemic within the correctional system.

Read the open letter, signed by JHS Canada, BC Civil Liberties Association, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, Canadian Prison Law Association, & Prisoners Legal Services

We see the challenges facing the justice system – and individuals experiencing incarceration, in particular – in our own region too, with outbreaks recently declared at provincial and federal correctional facilities across the Pacific.

“Just as with long term care facilities, when COVID-19 outbreaks happen in the prisons, staff and the wider community are also put at risk.” – a statement made in the open letter linked above.

One strategy recommended within the letter is to reduce the rates of incarceration to enable effective physical distancing measures inside prisons.

“Depopulation continues to be an urgent need and will require swift action and creativity from the minister’s office, CSC, the parole board, and community partners”

Since early in the pandemic, JHS has supported the depopulation of prisons in response to COVID-19. We have also emphasized the need for government to work closely with community reintegration support providers to ensure that community supports are in place and that organizations have the resources they need to help individuals successfully transition back to the community.

From the onset of COVID-19, we have been engaging with community partners, government ministries, and others from across the sector to find innovative ways to support vulnerable populations across our region.

Through a new program, introduced to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 during heightened risk of contraction in BC correctional settings, we are thankful to have the opportunity to do just that.

Introducing our Community Support Initiatives

Acknowledging the range of COVID-induced challenges facing individuals experiencing incarceration, we knew that as advocates, we needed to leverage our experience and capacity to support people further.

Rewind to the early days of the pandemic – we approached our funders, partners, and government ministries playing a key role in serving vulnerable community members, to see how we might be able to do this.

We approached stakeholders at the local, provincial, and national level, to express our availability to provide support wherever possible to citizens facing enhanced barriers due to COVID-19. Shortly thereafter, a homelessness taskforce involving multiple government departments in BC identified that people experiencing homelessness after leaving prison were at high risk of COVID-19 exposure and transmission.

Enter our Community Support Initiatives (CSI) program.

CSI supports people with complex needs as they transition to the community from provincial correctional settings. Through innovative program design and collaborative partnership between JHS Pacific, BC Corrections, and BC Housing – two ministries who work to achieve complementary goals, but don’t traditionally work directly alongside one another – CSI breaks down silos and barriers to support for people as they reintegrate.

man with a mask on (PPE) working in a workshop

The program provides personalized support to individuals to find and maintain housing; assistance with employment, education, life-skills, and other essential reintegration services; connections to pro-social supports in the community; information on their rights and responsibilities; and works to reduce experiences of isolation and community disconnect.

CSI supports the reduction of rates of incarceration during COVID-19 by providing comprehensive reintegration services that support people’s unique needs and goals as they transition to communities across BC. Delivered in 7 communities across the province, it is important that programs such as CSI are delivered in ways that meet local needs and address the unique challenges that individuals face as they transition to their respective communities. 

As such, we have teamed up with other regional John Howard Societies who deliver the program in their local communities.

Learn more about CSI

While COVID-19 has caused many challenges for our collective society, and for vulnerable community members in particular, we continue to find ways to offer our support the best we can, in order to have the greatest impact possible as we work towards our vision.

We know that there is so much more work to be done to eliminate the harms caused through the pandemic; the challenges people are facing on a daily basis in prison, the barriers people in community face in meeting their needs, and the isolation that many individuals are experiencing due to the efforts we must carry out to keep each other safe. But we are proud of the strides we have made, and of programs like CSI, and are eager to continue expanding our efforts to serve vulnerable peoples throughout the pandemic and beyond.

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