COVID-19 UPDATE FROM TARNOW CRIMINAL LAWLearn More

Mission Impossible: Managing COVID-19 in the Canadian Correctional System

On March 18, 2020, the BC court system responded to the coronavirus pandemic swiftly and without hesitation, reducing operations by the likes of which criminal counsel simply hasn’t seen before. Once it was confirmed how rapidly COVID19 spreads, the crowded confines of publicly accessed courtrooms were immediately deemed inappropriate – dangerous even. Since courtrooms often yield a congregation of some of society’s most vulnerable people, it made perfect sense to act defensively. These decisions, and many others effecting the justice system, were made only one week after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.

Unfortunately, there was a noticeable absence of urgency when it came time to protect the vulnerable inmate population overcrowded and totally confined within the walls of Mission Institution.


“In the worst-case scenario, CSC will need to order more body bags and find cold storage to stack up the bodies of those whose lives will be lost that could have been saved”Justin Piche, criminologist, Criminalization and Punishment Project at the University of Ottawa

On March 31, 2020, federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair recommended that the Correctional Service of Canada (“CSC”) immediately consider the release of non-violent inmates to mitigate the unavoidable reality that the virus could, and would, devastate the wellbeing of prison populations. His recommendation came on the heels of the CSC announcing the first two positive COVID-19 cases in federal institutions in Quebec.

On April 4, 2020, the CSC announced 4 confirmed cases at Mission Institution, leading to a lockdown of the facility.  

By April 8, 2020, there were 11 confirmed cases, all inmates. Nearly one month had passed since the WHO declared a global pandemic.

By April 18, 60 inmates and 10 staff tested positive, and the CSC marked its first coronavirus related inmate death, exactly one month after the courts effectively shut down.

By April 25, 2020, 106 inmates and 12 correctional officers were confirmed to be infected, representing the largest outbreak in the Canadian Correctional System. On this date, the CSC advised that all inmates at Mission Medium Institution had been tested, but in any event, new cases were continuing to be discovered.

While disturbing, none of these developments are surprising. The largest incidence of outbreaks has been at long-term care homes – combining close quarters, limited mobility, and care-workers employed at more than one facility is a recipe for disaster when it comes to COVID-19, a pathogen that spreads and infects without discrimination. The same vulnerabilities exist within the correctional system, where they are intensified. Inmates and corrections staff are simply unable to practice crucial social distancing. Personal protective equipment for inmates has not been prioritized as it has in other sectors, despite these individuals being at a much higher risk of getting sick.

The CSC responded to COVID-19 by prohibiting visits to inmates, temporary absences, work releases, and inmate transfers between correctional facilities. While these steps likely helped to curb the spread of the virus, as a whole, they are grossly inadequate. Without a vaccine, social distancing remains our greatest defence against the virus. For the inmates at Mission Institution and those incarcerated at facilities across Canada, proper protective equipment is hard to come by, but hope is even harder.

PTSD: Post-Trial Struggles & Dysphoria Life after Judgement: Juror Edition

PTSD: Post-Trial Struggles & Dysphoria Life after Judgement: Juror Edition

Dialogue surrounding mental illness echoes from the walls of nearly every courtroom across the country, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone. When dealing with an Accused person, both Crown and Defence will investigate what their client’s state of mind was like during the commission of the offence – it speaks to intent, which is a very important component in analyzing the intricacies of criminal behavior.

If Crown Counsel proceeds by way of Indictment (as opposed to summarily), the Accused will have the option of having their case heard by a Judge and Jury. If they so choose to have a Jury, members of the public will receive a summons to attend Jury Selection. Some will be chosen, and some will be dismissed. All who are chosen to sit on the jury will not have a say in what their role will be – they are bound by civic duty to fully participate.

Lengthy criminal trials are not uncommon – Robert Pickton’s Trial in 2007 lasted nearly a year, with lawyers calling 129 witnesses, and generating over 1.3 million documents. 129 individuals providing testimony, often gruesome and violent in nature, falling on the ears of 12 every day citizens, none of whom requested to put their lives on hold for a year. Jurors are required to view photo and video evidence, regardless of how brutal those images may be.

But, what happens to jurors once the Trial is over? One would assume that they gladly return to the nuisances of the life they had before the Trial. Sadly, however, many never return to their normal lives.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is often associated with mental illness – however, this is not a fact. PTSD is a psychiatric injury. After repetitive exposure to traumatic situations, the human psyche may succumb to the disturbance. This is rarely immediate – recurring nightmares or overwhelming thoughts are normal to a point. Fresh events remain fresh in our minds.

It is the fog, cotton-in-your-ears feeling, and anxiety that will indicate the onset of PTSD weeks or months after the trauma has occurred. It can be a very isolating and numbing experience – and for whatever reason, societal stigma or taboo, people tend to carry a lot of shame with their PTSD diagnosis. And it is no different for jurors like the ones who sat on Pickton’s jury.

After hearing weeks of testimony, a juror can feel a genuine, bona fide connection with the victim(s). This is amplified when the victim’s family and friends are present for the Trial. Huge internal conflict can erupt when a juror must balance their responsibility and duty to the Court with their own morals and values. This internal back-and-forth is another burden, on top of what they have seen and heard, that they will be left to deal with on their own when jury duty is over.

So what responsibility does our government have to jurors afflicted with PTSD as a result of their participation at Trial? It would not be absurd to consider them as victims of crime. As such, they should have access to every single resource that is made available to the victims of first instance.

Last month in Ontario, the provincial government began offering free counselling for juror members, available either at the end of the coroner’s inquest, or at the end of the Trial. Only time will tell how receptive jurors are to the program, which sadly, hangs on the willingness of individuals to fight against PTSD and its crippling side effects.