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Legal action seeks to ensure inmate safety during COVID-19 pandemic

May 13, 2020

Public interest groups bring legal action to curb the spread of COVID-19 in prisons

An application has been filed against the federal government, seeking to force it to take urgent steps ensure inmate safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The application is brought by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Prison Law Association, the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario, the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and a federal inmate, Sean Johnston.

The applicants maintain that federal prisoners are disproportionately at risk of contracting COVID-19 due to the nature of the penitentiary environment. They are also at greater risk of suffering severe adverse outcomes including death, due to the prevalence among the federal inmate population of pre-existing vulnerabilities.

Since, physical distancing cannot be achieved in correctional facilities without reducing the inmate population, the applicants are asking the court to order Correctional Services Canada (CSC) to immediately take proactive steps to reduce the prison population to the greatest extent possible consistent with public safety.

They are also seeking orders requiring CSC to, among other things: implement adequate physical distancing for prisoners and staff within penitentiaries; implement comprehensive testing for prisoners and staff; supply adequate personal protective equipment for prisoners and staff; supply hand soap and hand sanitizer; and ensure frequent, enhanced cleaning throughout the institutions.

The applicants will argue that CSC has breached its statutory duties and violated the rights of prisoners under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by: failing to take all reasonable steps to ensure a safe and healthful penitentiary environment; failing to provide prisoners with essential health care in the context of COVID-19; and failing to take each prisoner’s health status and health care needs into consideration in all decisions affecting the prisoner.

The applicants will also argue that CSC’s use of lockdowns and confinement of prisoners in conditions equivalent or tantamount to segregation for indefinite and prolonged periods of time in response to COVID-19 violates the rights of prisoners.

The Huffington Post reports on the application here. It notes that, on the same day as the application was filed, CSC reported that 333 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in institutions across the country, and two have died.  See other reports from the National Post here and from the Globe and Mail here.

You can read the Notice of Application here.


Jessica Orkin, Adriel Weaver, Daniel Sheppard, Jody Brown

Practice Areas

Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Pension & Benefits Law