The Lived Experience of COVID-19 in a Minimum Security Prison

During my years working in the youth justice field, I was often stunned by the repeated gaps I encountered between policy and practice. Policy was regularly recited as assurance that legal obligations were being met (all necessary medical and dental care was being offered, prisoners were free from physical punishment, and so forth). Frequently, the reality was something quite different.

I learned to hold the voices of people with lived experience in high esteem, and I continue to always strive to include them. Engaging those with lived experience has become a valued component of policy tables, service design, and service delivery across multiple sectors. If we want to find out what’s really going on in a federal penitentiary, a visit to the Corrections Canada website will not give us the whole story.

Enter Kevin Belanger. Kevin reached out to CFSC by letter in February 2020. He was writing as Chair of the Inmate Committee at the Joyceville Institution Minimum Security Unit. It was in that first letter that Kevin included a cautionary comment that what is policy does not always happen.

Kevin is 60 years old and has spent six years inside Canadian minimum-security institutions. He has consistently held the position of Inmate Committee Chair and as a result developed significant connections with both inmates and Corrections Canada staff. Kevin has been involved in various initiatives, including the provision of a two-page guide for inmates contained in the version of The Bible that is distributed throughout Canadian prisons.

He has also written two articles for the peer-reviewed Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, which brings prisoners’ voices together with academic arguments about issues to do with incarceration. Kevin is now on parole and living in Eastern Ontario. Kevin says he intends to continue to help those on the inside and to work for positive change to the system.

On March 24th, I had the good fortune to spend an hour and a half on a Zoom call with Kevin Belanger. Below are excerpts taken from that conversation and written in Kevin’s own words.

In the last year there has probably been a 30% to 50% increase in parole hearings at Joyceville. I think I only counted five who didn’t get parole. But all of us who got out as the result of a parole hearing—we had places to live lined-up. The Parole Board (PB) is not letting anyone out who doesn’t have residency of some kind. Even if they meet the release criteria to get into a half-way house, it’s more difficult [to get a space] now because [half-way houses] have gone to single rooms since the pandemic.

I sat for seven weeks waiting for a bed—got parole on Jan 20th and was released on March 4th. That was two months—the days and nights were long—I was living out of my already packed cardboard boxes. It was OK because I understood. I had to learn patience years ago—to be in the system you must learn patience.

I know one man who’s been there 13 months waiting to be released. He got full parole a year ago and still has not left the institution. Housing is a huge issue.

I lived in minimum security—no walls, no fence. The rules changed. They had to change for the pandemic. We went from nine hours a day of free time to an hour and a half. No programs, all in-person visits cancelled, gym and weight room closed, library closed, and no chapel services.

Healthcare was coming to us, they brought the medications. Our groceries were delivered right to the door and we cooked our own food. We had 41 houses with six to eight guys in each house. To do laundry and to use the phone you had to go outside to the common area or “bubble” as we called it.

Joyceville is two separate institutions on the same property—medium and minimum security. We were mostly lucky on the minimum side. Especially given the aging of our population, COVID-19 would have been terrible. But sometimes they would do things that just didn’t make sense.

From December 15-22, 2020 we were locked down for nine days during the first outbreak at the institution.

I was working in the community every day for three months before that but work was stopped. Right before Christmas we couldn’t get out to phone our families and all they heard about us on TV and the radio was “large outbreak at Joyceville Institution.” When you hear “large outbreak” —first it was 30, then 40… then 80 inmates—before it was done, they had over 160 cases—we had no access to phones, that is something that needs to be addressed.

“He got full parole a year ago and still has not left the institution.”

In the “bubble” there were four [or] five phones, three washers, [and] three dryers. That’s where you call your family. That’s what got people wound up the worst, the lack of access to family, not [being] allowed to call for even five minutes to reassure family that we were OK.

I think you should have been able to come out, one house at a time: short calls supervised by an officer. One call per guy. There were a number of guys charged for leaving their houses and using the phone during that time, some got as high as $25 fines. At the most we earn $69 every two weeks.

Other than that, the Joyceville staff really stepped up to the plate. We had pre-ordered turkeys and staff delivered them to our houses.

I always said, “I hope they have a plan.” I must have been told a hundred times, “Don’t worry, they have a plan, they have a plan.” Guess what? They didn’t have a plan. Did nobody think that people need to call family?

Most staff will say, “This doesn’t make any sense to me either.” Sometimes it’s just little things, very little things, that mean nothing if you are outside but when you are inside, it means the day. That’s why when we couldn’t get out for over a week to use the phone, that really hit lots of guys hard.

Listen to the staff that come out of their offices and are doing the case work… listen to guys who have been through the system and will tell you: “It may say that on a piece of paper, but that’s not how it works when you come into the jail.”

Everything [on the outside] has changed so much, but the penitentiaries have not changed. Maybe [the system] had great intentions twenty or thirty years ago—but this is 2021. Maybe it’s time to change the policies and the programs?

You have guys who have been inside 20 to 30 years and then you let them out. Well, they don’t know how to manage a bank card, they are used to cash, what do you mean “tap your card?”

We have so much aging population inside now. We are the caregivers. We have cons (us) looking after other cons. We are not equipped to do that. These are the real things that need to be addressed.

Yes, we do look after each other. But we are not nurses or personal support workers. If you have such an aging population you better think about this—prison—any federal pen, is not the place for these guys. Just look at the Correctional Investigator’s report from a few years ago. [Editor’s note: See our 2018 article Canada’s Aging Prison Population for more about this issue.]

I sometimes think that senior staff have never been inside an institution. There are 43 institutions across Canada, I realize you can’t be in them all. But you shouldn’t make blanket policies because all institutions are different.

I can only speak for Joyceville. 95% of the front-line staff were great people. And senior management too, they would help us with anything they could. I had good communication with the Warden.

When National Headquarters takes away the power from the institution—this is where the problems start. Let the Warden be the Warden. Let staff do their jobs. Most of them are very good at it.

Most of us don’t want failure either because we have to live there. You have to remember this is our home.

Nancy Russell is CFSC’s Criminal Justice Program Coordinator.