Two cannabis advocacy groups across two borders are adding their voices to the swelling movement calling for the depopulation of prisons to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, Cannabis Amnesty in Canada and the Drug Policy Alliance in the U.S. both released statements supporting the release of low-risk inmates to allow for physical distancing to control the novel coronavirus.
The Canadian government should focus on releasing people near the end of their sentence, people with non-violent drug offences or particularly vulnerable groups of inmates, like seniors, Cannabis Amnesty said.
The Drug Policy Alliance asked Americans to call on Congress to pass the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, known as the MORE Act, which would clear people’s criminal records and set them free from prisons.
“As we face this health crisis, we appropriately see medical marijuana access in legal states declared essential. But we also see thousands of people who were arrested for marijuana remain behind bars, facing the grave threat of COVID-19 outbreaks in overcrowded jails and prisons,” Queen Adesuyi, the Drug Policy Alliance policy manager, wrote in a campaign email.
In a prison facility located in Mission, B.C., the threat of the virus isn’t a hypothetical. At the Mission Institution, as of Saturday, 54 inmates and nine correctional officers have tested positive for the virus and one inmate has died. The virus ripped through the facility of around 300 inmates because prisoners weren’t tested when they started showing COVID-19 symptoms and inmates and staff alike weren’t allowed to isolate after being exposed to infectious people, Postmedia reported.
As Jen Metcalfe reminds: “Even if people don’t care about the human rights of prisoners, we as a society have decided that the death penalty is an inappropriate sanction no matter what people’s crimes are…we’re essentially giving people a death sentence.”
— Kim Bolan (@kbolan) April 18, 2020
As of Saturday, Correctional Services Canada said a total of 170 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, with 29 inmates having recovered. These cases happened despite the CSC’s published COVID-19 plan, which says it can control the spread of the virus by restricting its staff and the movement of inmates.
But due to overcrowding, the only way to ensure inmate health and safety is to depopulate prisons, as much as possible, as soon as possible, Cannabis Amnesty said.
“Those in Canadian prisons and jails should not be condemned to sit on death row. This is simply inhumane,” read the statement.
Prisons aren’t as isolated as we’d like to think, Cannabis Amnesty director Annamaria Enenajor said.
In New York, coronavirus outbreaks at correctional facilities have hugely impacted correctional officers who then can infect the general population, she said.
“You can’t segregate the prison population,” Enenajor said. “It’s a porous frontier and you’re going to have consequences that bleed into regular society.”
Prisons also aren’t being kept as clean as they should be, she said.
Enenjaor said in provincial prisons, inmates are responsible for cleaning their own living spaces, but aren’t given proper training on how to do that. They also aren’t given protective gear like gloves and masks.
And that’s compounding on top of other systemic issues like how one in four federal prisoners was over 50 years old in 2016, and 11 per cent of inmates had mental health disorders in 2008, Enenajor said. In 2015, a report also found half of prisoners showed signs of substance dependance and 90 per cent of inmates over 65 years were obese.
“The prison population is only getting older and it’s also getting sicker,” and that’s before the pandemic hit, she said.
Enenajor said she believes the movement to depopulate prisons will benefit the Cannabis Amnesty campaign once the pandemic ends.
The courts have been introduced to the idea that locking people up isn’t the best way to solve societal problems, which will be hard to acknowledge and then later back away from, she said.
Ontario and the Northwest Territories have lead the country in depopulating their prisons, each reducing their incarcerated population by 25 per cent, according to the National Post.
To celebrate 4/20 and the fight for justice and equality that it was built on, Cannabis Amnesty is asking people to donate to organizations doing a bang-up job of helping vulnerable populations. They published a list of the top-10 organizations to donate to on their website.
Top image of Inmates in Orleans Parish Prison by Bart Everson via Wikimedia Commons