BC inmate battling cancer in jail, fearful of COVID-19

Should the sick be in jail?

At 61, Frank Young is not in the best of health. The retired logger from Haida Gwaii has a history of heart failure and is battling lung cancer.

He is also hampered by obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary artery disease and atherosclerosis.

Add it all up, and Young’s combination of poor health conditions puts him at “extreme risk of death from exposure to COVID-19 illness or other transmissible infections such as influenza,” according to Dr. James Chrones of the Haida Gwaii Hospital & Health Centre.

So what is Young doing in prison, then?

A recent 72-page ruling from Prince Rupert provincial court judge David Patterson provides the answer.

Police in Skidegate arrested Young in February 2019 for possession of three ounces of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking. He was subsequently sentenced Jan. 15 to a year in custody, followed by two years of probation.

The concern of Young contracting the virus in an institution is why his lawyer, Bill Sundhu, argued for probation and house arrest, providing letters from doctors to the court, including Chrones’ assessment of Young’s vulnerability.

“I am highly concerned about the risks of an infection spread in an institutional setting, especially where many younger, healthier men live close together,” Chrones wrote.

Sundhu says he wouldn’t have argued for a suspended sentence in pre-pandemic times, noting the normal range for a first-time drug trafficker is between six months and 18 months in prison.

Prisoners in B.C. and across the country have not been immune to COVID-19, with data dated Jan. 20 from Correctional Service Canada showing 1,231 inmates had tested positive for the virus and four have died.

In B.C.’s 10 federal facilities, 125 prisoners had tested positive, with 120 at Mission Institution, where one inmate died last year. At least 15 staff had also tested positive at the medium-security facility during the outbreak last spring.

As for B.C.’s 10 provincial prisons, which includes the undisclosed facility where Young currently resides, 36 inmates and 35 staff had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic was declared in March 2020.

None of the 71 people required hospitalization, according to information from B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General. The number of positive cases recorded as of Jan. 18 includes previous outbreaks at the Okanagan Correctional Centre and North Fraser Pretrial Centre.

The statistics do not include the latest outbreak announced Wednesday at the Surrey Pretrial Services Centre, where public health teams from Fraser Health are contact tracing and working with BC Corrections to prevent further transmission of the virus.

Judge Patterson did not have such data before him in sentencing Young to a year in prison but acknowledged the 61-year-old’s “ongoing health issues and the dangers to you if you contract COVID-19.”

In the end, Patterson concluded a one-year jail sentence “does not result in a substantial risk that you will contract COVID-19, or not live out your sentence.” Patterson said any lesser sentence would bring the administration of justice into disrepute and be contrary to the public interest.

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