Jessica Evans on prison health as public health

29 March 2021 / by Sam Dharmasena
Jessica Evans on prison health as public health. Photo of stethoscope resting on tabletop.

As COVID-19 outbreaks continue in local prisons, CJRU spoke with Jessica Evans about the need to view prison health as public health. Evans is an assistant professor in Ryerson University’s sociology department and co-founder of Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project (TPRP). Drawing on her academic and community work, she shares how failures to address health care needs within prisons have far-reaching consequences. She also addresses the common misconception that the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care provides health care to Ontario prisoners. In reality it is the responsibility of the Ministry of the Solicitor General, formerly known as the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.

Evans uses the term prisoner instead of inmate which is often in government communications. She says this is a political move by activists to draw attention to the violence of incarceration, noting that the term inmate neutralizes that violence. The term inmate can be used for a number of other people living in congregate or state run facilities where the objective is treatment. Examples of this include long term care homes and psychiatric institutions. Evans adds that those spaces rarely provide treatment or care either. However, it is important to be clear that prisoners are not provided with treatment even at a superficial level. 

Black and white logo for Toronto Prisoners' Rights Project
Logo courtesy of Jessica Evans

“The health of prisoners during COVID-19 is a matter of public health. Prisons don’t exist in a vacuum. And as much as we might push them to the margins of our popular imagination, people go into and out of prisons and jails all the time. Whether that’s folks that have been incarcerated or whether that’s correctional staff. So the failure to address chronic outbreaks, like we’re seeing right now, is going to impact our ability to get something like COVID-19 under control in the broader public as well,” Evans says. 

In Canada there are federal and provincial prisons. Individuals with sentences longer than two years are in the federal system. Meanwhile, the provincial system is for individuals with shorter sentences or those in remand. Individuals in remand are awaiting trial or sentencing. Making up 65% of Ontario prisoners in 2020, the remand population greatly outnumber the sentenced. 

Evans says common health care needs arise in each system. For example, the federal prison population is often an ageing one. And provincial prison populations are often a transient one, entering and exiting the system frequently. But a transient population receiving care from two different government bodies means there is a lack of continuity of care. Evans notes that this is especially worrying when addressing harm reduction or infectious disease.

“If someone is in provincial corrections and you start treating a particular issue. Once they’re out and released into the public, they’re not able to access those same resources,” she explains.

In the interview below Jessica Evans discusses Canada’s prison system with a focus on Ontario. She explores health care provision for prisoners and the need to include prisoners in society’s understanding of the public.