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In the prison system, jails have the potential to be a petri dish in a pandemic. Conditions make rapid and widespread transmission in, and out of, penal institutions a significant concern. How are Ontario’s prisons adapting to these concerns during COVID-19?


Upon arriving at the jail, inmates enter a 15-day lockdown as a part of the pandemic protocol. These first two weeks are spent in segregation. This means there is no access to staff and severely limited access to other inmates.

Everything is designed to stop the spread of the virus by minimizing contact with others. However, these practices do not cater to hygiene. There is only one prison jumpsuit provided with no changes of clothes, including underwear for two weeks. Throughout the lockdown, inmates are provided with no hygienic defence. This means no masks and no gloves or hand sanitizer. Shower access is limited and no shared soap dispensers.


In a prison, inmates are at a greater risk of contracting or spreading the virus. This is due to several factors.


Several people are held in a confined environment for an extended time. If someone has COVID, there is a high risk of spread.

Site-Specific Challenges

The nature of prison designs, schedules, and products limits the ability to minimize risks. There is poor ventilation and limited outdoor access for inmates. As well, there are fewer hygiene products available with alcohol-based products (hand sanitizer) being deemed “contraband.”

The prisons are also unequipped to adequately isolate everyone, relying heavily on the initial 15-day lockdown.

Spread to Community

The risks are not limited to the prisons themselves, leading to potential exposure to the surrounding communities.

In addition to potential spread by visitors and employees, COVID can also spread through people awaiting trial. People incarcerated for sentences of two years less a day share space with people who are still awaiting trial.

This further increases the need for expanding Legal Aid services during COVID-19, helping people access bail.

Pandemic Causing Heightened Anxiety in Jails

Being incarcerated is stressful enough in regular times. In a pandemic, anxiety is heightened for everyone. In prison systems, where contact risks are more substantial, this heightened anxiety is even more pronounced. Globally, this has already led to challenges and affected prisoner behaviour.


One of the steps taken to reduce the risk of spread to the community is banning personal visits. While this is good for preventing the spread of the virus it is likely to negatively impact personal relationships, quality of life, and mental health.

This has already had an impact on prisons and prisoners. In Italy, prison riots broke out as a reaction to the visitor ban. The riots resulted in 12 deaths and 11 escapes.

Visitor alternatives such as video and phone calls are proposed, but do not offer the same positive assurance and effects as in-person.

Professional visits with lawyers are still allowed.


Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves have been insufficient or unavailable in prisons. This has been an issue for prisoners and staff alike. By late April, 66 inmates and 12 staff had already tested positive for COVID-19. Ontario did not even provide PPE for the correctional staff until after closing the Brampton jail due to an outbreak.


Isolation is currently being used where it is deemed necessary. But the ability to properly isolate and quarantine potential exposures is severely limited. Any facility can only effectively isolate a few inmates at a time, and with all incoming prisoners going through a lockdown, this leaves little or no extra space for quarantining.


The problems of managing Corona risks increase the need for alternative sentencing during this time. Alternative sentences have the potential to benefit everyone. Not only are they often more effective and have lower rates of recidivism, but they also keep more people out of prison.

Options like parole, house arrest, and community service could help reduce the challenges of overcrowding during the pandemic. This would be the ideal time to put the value of alternative sentencing to the test, paving the way to a better and more effective Justice System.


When facing charges for a criminal offence it’s important to hire a defence lawyer who cares about you and your rights. William Jaksa is a Toronto criminal defence lawyer who is familiar with the alternatives to prison sentences. He has helped a number of clients receive conditional sentences that allow for electronic home monitoring rather than imprisonment.

Contact William Jaksa today for a consultation.

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