COVID-19 outbreak at Quebec jail puts Inuit detainees at risk: lawyer
“The conditions are pretty drastic,” says Nadia Golmier, who works with inmates
Quebec public security officials are trying to contain an outbreak of COVID-19 in a Montreal-area jail that houses Inuit inmates from Nunavik.
The Saint-Jérôme detention centre, located northwest of Montreal, currently has a population of 309 inmates — 40 of whom are Inuit.
As of Jan. 25, Quebec’s public security department reported 45 active cases of COVID-19 among inmates and another 16 cases of the virus among staff at the facility.
The department said it couldn’t specify if any Inuit detainees were among those infected.
Nadia Golmier, a Montreal lawyer who works clients at Saint-Jérôme, says all inmates at the facility are at a heightened risk, and are being held in inhumane conditions in the meantime.
“The conditions are pretty drastic,” she said. “They might get a shower every two weeks.”
Due to the outbreak, all inmates have been subject to lockdown measures for a 28-day period, Golmier said, which confines detainees to their cells almost 24 hours a day.
Golmier acknowledges that jails are following regulations imposed by public health authorities, and in some cases, for good reason.
“The problem is, these regulations are not adapted to jail settings,” she said. “They didn’t take into account the psychological impact this has on inmates.”
For Inuit detainees, who are at a great distance from their home regions and using a second or third language, the conditions are especially difficult, Golmier said.
The majority of Inuit incarcerated at Saint-Jérôme are housed in a separate area, said Marie-Josée Montminy, a spokesperson for Quebec’s Department of Public Security.
But sometimes Inuit stay in other areas of the detention centre, especially when staff are trying to separate inmates with active or suspected cases of COVID-19 from the general population, she said.
Typically, Makivik Corp. arranges cultural programming and support services for Nunavimmiut inmates in Montreal-area jails, but the organization has not had access to detainees while lockdowns are in place.
Makivik Corp. did not respond to Nunatsiaq News’ request for more information.
In June 2020, the Office of the Correctional Investigator raised the alarm over the high number of COVID-19 infections among Inuit inmates in federal prisons. Most of those cases were clustered at the Federal Training Centre in Laval, Que., which houses a unit for Inuit men.
Although there haven’t been any more confirmed cases of COVID-19 at that facility since last summer, investigations into suspected cases continue to cut inmates off from important services, said Montreal lawyer Alexandra Paquette, who works with Inuit clients at the facility.
“At any suspicion of positive cases [of COVID-19], the whole jail is on lockdown and all the programming and visits are suspended,” she said.
“A lot of my clients go in front of the [parole board] without having completed the program targeted in their correctional plan,” Paquette said. “Which is very problematic in regards to lowering the risk of recidivism and in terms of social rehabilitation.”
The correctional investigator’s June 2020 report noted that while Inuit account for less than one per cent of the total incarcerated population in Canada, they represented five per cent of all COVID-19 cases in federal corrections at the time.