Ontario released over 2,300 convicted criminals from jail early due to fears over a COVID-19 outbreak in the prison system. Those fears are valid, as the Mission Correctional Institution in British Columbia proves.
That correctional facility, as of April 23, 2020, has 65 inmates and a dozen staff members testing positive for COVID-19. It’s the highest concentration of infection in any prison in Canada.
This sets the stage for a battle between the rights of two disparate groups and asks a very uncomfortable question – Who’s rights are more important: those of convicted criminals or those of law-abiding citizens?
You’ll be shocked, I’m sure, to see I land fully on the side of law-abiding citizens.
But this brings up another uncomfortable question.
Should we endanger public safety because of a health risk to people housed in our correctional facilities?
Again, I say no, we should not, but my answer leads to still more more pesky and uncomfortable questions.
Where does compassion come into play? Indeed, should it come into play at all?
And who is going to guard these inmates if a massive outbreak occurs?
The water gets muddy and it gets muddy fast.
These individuals are in prison because they don’t care about the well-being of others. The safety of those of us who do care about the well-being of others, if only to the extent we don’t land in jail, should be more important.
But those darned prison guards. What do we do about them?
The USS Theodore Roosevelt Outbreak
This ethical road twists and turns like an alpine Swiss road. It’s just as treacherous too, as the experience aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt shows.
The outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier home to 4,800 men and women, began when the first sailor tested positive for COVID-19 on March 22. Since then, 777 members of the Roosevelt’s crew have tested positive for the virus and one crewman is dead.
Half of those who tested positive, primarily healthy young men and women under the age of 30, are asymptomatic – meaning they show no outward signs of infection.
This is twice as high as the asymptomatic rate of infection among the general population. If that twice-normal rate is replicated inside Canada’s correction facilities we could see a massive health crisis affecting both inmates and prison guards alike.
Prison guards at the Mission Institution are already pretty angry about their work conditions. Who can blame them? We don’t want to work in a plague-ridden environment, so how can we ask them to do it?
I, for one, can’t.
This leaves me in an uncomfortable position. I have no right to demand prison guards go to work in an environment where I would refuse to go myself.
Accepting the Unacceptable
If I’m unwilling to take the place of these Corrections Canada staff, then I must accept the action taken by our government on this issue, even though it endangers public safety.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt‘s experience, our humanity and our compassion demand we release prisoners early wherever possible. This compassionate release must be limited to non-violent offenders, even though they too would not normally be given such a gift.
Three months ago I would have told you I would never argue for the early release of convicted criminals, yet here I am today doing just that.
We do indeed live in strange times.