Prisons and Healthcare; Ne’er the T’wain Shall Meet?

Julie Bilotta became a mother on September 29, 2012. She gave birth to her son Gionni alone in solitary confinement in the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC), after laboring for nine hours while allegedly being ignored and/or taunted by staff who did not believe that she was in the process of delivering a baby. Julie remains in detention pending a bail hearing.

According to news reports, Julie was only allowed to hold her baby in the ambulance on the way to the hospital after his birth, and will see her baby through a sheet of Plexiglas during closed OCDC visits.

Ontario’s Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, the Honorable Madeleine Meilleur, has stated that “pregnant inmates should expect to receive the same level of care that expecting mothers in the community receive.” The circumstances of Gionni’s birth – drastically different than women who are not incarcerated – brings to mind various causes of action in tort and under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms against OCDC. It also raises the more essential issue of a right to health for persons in prison, their family members, and their community.

Just a few days prior to Gionni’s birth, an important lawsuit was filed against the federal government by former prisoner Steven Simons, along with the Canadian HIV-AIDS Legal Network, Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network, Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, and CATIE, for its failure to provide safe injection equipment to those incarcerated in federal penitentiaries. Cast as a breach of sections 7 and 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the action alleges that prisoners are being discriminated against as they do not have any access to the sterile injection equipment widely available for drug users through community based programs across Canada. The plaintiffs argue that the effect of the prohibition on injection equipment in prisons, labelled as “contraband” thus triggering further penal sanctions, along with the stated refusal of federal correctional authorities to authorize prisoners to possess their own injection equipment, jointly compromise the health and lives of injection drug-users in prisons. The lawsuit alleges that due to Correctional Services Canada’s policies and practices, prisoners share used and makeshift equipment resulting in a higher prevalence of blood-borne infections, and that there is a disproportionate effect on persons with the disability of addiction, Aboriginal people, and women. Interestingly, the plaintiffs also argue that these factors create a greater potential for transmission of blood-borne infections outside of prison, thus creating a public health problem beyond prisons.

Like the issues raised in the lawsuit, Julie’s treatment by OCDC raises questions about public health both inside and outside our prisons. Julie is being denied a chance to establish a bond with her newborn son, and in turn, Gionni is being denied the right to breastfeed, often important for the physical and psychological health of newborns. In protesting the treatment of prisoners in Canada, we often adopt the language of fiscal responsibility for public health resources in arguing that the impacts of government negligence and/or discrimination extend to people outside of prisons. But the correct answer to why these issues matter is that prisoners are part of our community – and they deserve to enjoy the same healthcare services and non-discriminatory treatment as the rest of us.

More information about the action commenced by Steven Simons, the Canadian HIV-AIDS Legal Network, Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network, Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, and CATIE lawsuit can be found here

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