Prisoner advocates call for intervention as Sask. Penitentiary COVID-19 outbreak grows

Prisoner’s advocacy group Beyond Prison Walls Canada sent a letter to the Office of the Correctional Investigator on Wednesday saying that the rights of inmates at Saskatchewan Penitentiary are being violated as COVID-19 spreads in the facility.

The group also says inmates, having ended a hunger strike, have entered a “suicide pact” that has not been taken seriously by staff.

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“As of last night when I received a call from a prisoner there were men who have prepared their rope to hang themselves. They have not indicated when but this suicide pact has been mentioned for two days now,” prisoner advocate Sherri Maier wrote.

She alleged that guards are being unprofessional towards the inmates. She also alleged that in one instance, a guard assaulted a prisoner with his food tray.

The allegations of guard misconduct are unproven. The union that represents penitentiary guards said in an interview Tuesday unrelated to Maier’s letter that correctional officers are doing everything they can to keep people safe and to minimize the spread of COVID-19. They said keeping inmates happy and active is in their best interest too, as it helps to reduce tension on the range and make their job safer.

Maier said prisoners on one unit have asked to be let out in groups of four or six for “a couple hours” rather than one at a time for 30 minutes. She said they would practice social distancing “but the guards refused and said they will not facilitate or babysit that.” 

She said CSC (Correctional Services Canada) has failed by not preparing for COVID-19 to enter the institution and because the inmates are contemplating suicide, but are allegedly not being taken seriously.

Maier said that on Tuesday she received a message from a mother whose son was transferred from the Regional Psychiatric Center in Saskatoon on Dec. 6 to Sask Pen. She said he now has COVID-19 and that the night prior he attempted to take his own life. 

“These men have rights and they can not continue to be locked up this long and have no access to mental health services. Clearly the staff there are unable to handle what is going on. Medical staff are doing COVID tests but do not inform prisoners of the results, this makes no sense,” she alleged.

She called the amount of time allotted to inmates outside of their cells “ridiculous" and lambasted living conditions at the facility.

She said some units are “very dirty.” 

“There are men who are bathing in their sinks, because they only get 30 minutes out and want to use that for the phone to update family as to what is going on. These men are unable to do their laundry so some are washing their clothes in the sinks in their cells,” Maier wrote. 

“This is unhealthy for prisoners and staff.”

Maier said there is “no excuse” for the COVID-19 outbreak and “no excuse as to why there was no preparation for this other than pure negligence on Sask Pen and CSC.” 

She said that the mental health of inmates is deteriorating as the lockdown continues, and asked the CSC to take action before Christmas to avoid prisoners taking “drastic measures.” She called the situation “inhumane.” 

“This is not right. It's close to Christmas and the grim reality is that these men are going to spend Christmas in their cells alone, unable to contact family. This is upsetting,” Maier wrote.

“These men's rights are violated and there needs to be a better plan of action made, they can not continue to be locked up 23.5 hours a day with no contact with family.” 

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples national vice-chief Kim Beaudin pointed to disproportionate numbers of Indigenous people incarcerated at Saskatchewan Penitentiary and likened the conditions to a “death sentence” for inmates. 

On Tuesday, Beaudin called on CSC to release all inmates held for non-violent offences, implement immediate testing for COVID-19 for all inmates and staff and to ensure any infected inmates are given separate living quarters from other inmates. 

“I also urge that those kept caged in Canada’s colonial federal penitentiaries be given access to the programs, contact with loved ones and volunteers, and supplies required to come out of this crisis alive,” Beaudin said. 

“Inaction will signal to Indigenous peoples that our lives do not matter and that the federal government remains unable to move past colonialist legacies.” 

He pointed a finger at CSC commissioner Anne Kelly who he said should resign along with those deemed responsible for failing to contain the outbreak and called on the Government of Canada to take action.

“No segment of society has gone untouched by COVID-19. Our government is focused on protecting and supporting all Canadians, including inmates and correctional staff,”  Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair’s Press Secretary Mary-Liz Power said in a written response.

“We know the unique vulnerabilities facing correctional institutions during this public health crisis. In response to COVID-19 cases in federal institutions, Correctional Services Canada (CSC) has put in place extensive infection prevention and control measures across all institutions, at all security levels.”

She said those measures include mandatory masks for inmates and staff, physical distancing measures,  active health screening of anyone entering an institution, contact tracing and increased and enhanced cleaning and disinfection at sites.  She said rapid testing is also in use for both staff and inmates.

Since the beginning of March, the overall federal custody population has declined by over 1,300 inmates. Those transferring into Saskatchewan Penitentiary are screened for COVID-19. Inmates transferring into the institution are medically isolated for 14 days after arrival, Power said. 

“They have the support of medical staff as well as unit staff during their isolation. They are housed in a separate unit during their isolation. CSC works closely with local public health experts to guide their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have already strengthened their infection prevention procedures to protect staff, offenders, and the community.”

Power said that additional personal protective equipment is also available for offenders and staff, as needed. “As this pandemic continues to evolve, we have been clear that our response will as well.”

Office of the Correctional Investigator Executive Director and General Counsel Monette Maillet said they have no comment on Wednesday. 

CSC spokesperson Kelly Dae Dash said in a written response that as of Tuesday there are 123 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, medium security unit. Of these, nine have recovered and 114 remain active.  

In addition, there are three active inmate cases at the maximum-security unit. There are also 12 active cases of COVID-19 among employees.

“The health and safety of our employees, offenders, and the public remains our top priority during this public health pandemic,” Dash said.

The CSC said contact tracing is underway and mass testing for COVID-19 is being offered to all staff and inmates at the institution in the maximum unit, medium unit, and minimum unit. 

This testing includes asymptomatic individuals. 

“We are testing frequently to help detect positive tests quickly and take the necessary actions. These tests are then laboratory-confirmed and we provide the results on our website, which is updated once daily from Monday to Friday,” Dash said.

Dash said that CSC provides its own health care to inmates and has “dedicated health care professionals in its institutions, including nurses and doctors, who are closely monitoring everyone in medical isolation.” 

“Should the need arise, inmates can also access facilities and treatment offered by community hospitals,” Dash said. 

“We continue to monitor this situation closely and continue to apply infection prevention and control measures to prevent and manage the spread of COVID-19 at Saskatchewan Penitentiary.” 

Dash said these measures include mandatory medical masks for inmates and staff, physical distancing measures, active health screening of anyone entering the institution, including temperature checks and symptom monitoring twice per day, as well as increased cleaning and disinfection.

“We have hired contract cleaners to assist with enhanced cleaning. Cleaning supplies and products are readily available for inmate use,” Dash said.

“Specifically, there are supplies available in each unit of the institution, as well as sanitizing wipes for high touch surfaces such as shower handles and telephones. Inmates are encouraged to use the wipes before and after each use of the showers or telephones.”

Families of and advocates for inmates have said they aren’t currently able to access the canteen, which means they can’t access cleaning supplies such as soap.

With regard to sanitation, Dash said that additional cleaning is completed on a range after inmates have completed their activities. 

“Since safety protocols only allow for one inmate to be on a range at a time, cleaners work in the morning as per the movement schedule are required to maintain safe physical distance,” Dash said. 

“CSC is also following the recommendation from the Canadian Red Cross, which states that garbage be accumulated on the ranges in order for large batches to go directly from the range to a garbage truck. This approach is being followed so that a clean area such as a hallway is not contaminated with range garbage.”

In her letter, Maier took issue with the amount of garbage piling up on ranges.

Dash said that CSC has modified the routine to ensure proper physical distancing and reduce possible transmission within different ranges in order to limit the transmission of COVID-19 as much as possible, Dash said inmate movements are kept to a minimum. 

“Given the closed living environment, positive inmates and close contacts are medically isolating in their cells. During the isolation period, inmates have access to health care staff as well as institutional staff,” Dash said  

“In addition, health care staff are completing wellness checks throughout the day.”

The CSC said that although inmates are self-isolating in their individual cells, they have daily access to telephones, showers, and time out of their cells while physical distancing measures are maintained.Inmates are also able to request telephone visits with Elders and Chaplains. 

“Saskatchewan Penitentiary has also provided inmates with wellness packages that include individual activities and snacks. Meals and medications are being delivered to inmates. Unfortunately items such as library books are considered high touch objects and are very difficult to sanitize properly,” Dash said.  

“In order to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 through sharing library books, inmates are not able to borrow books from the Saskatchewan Penitentiary institutional library. Normal operation of the institutional library will resume once health officials have determined it is safe to reopen. Regular communication to inmates at Saskatchewan Penitentiary is ongoing.” 

Dash said a fact sheet was shared with inmates when the first positive case of COVID-19 was confirmed, explaining the importance of physical distancing, wearing masks, hand washing, not sharing items between cells, and changes in routine.

“These measures continue to be communicated by staff who conduct hourly wellness checks with inmates. Inmates are also seen by health care staff who check vitals and are available to answer questions,” Dash said. 

Dash said that Canadian Red Cross employees are on site and are speaking regularly by telephone with inmate range representatives to educate and receive feedback on the measures.

“These range representatives then share the information with the rest of the inmate population. In addition, ongoing communication between institutional management, staff, and inmates is occurring to ensure that all inmate concerns are being heard and addressed where possible,” Dash said. 

Visits to the institution continue to be suspended to limit comings and goings but Dash said other options are available to inmates to connect with their family and support networks such as video visitation or telephone.

On Dec. 20, the Saskatchewan Health Authority issued a Public Health Order to staff employed at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary and the CSC said that staffing levels at the institution are now monitored and assessed daily and adjusted, as required.

“At this difficult time we remain committed to doing all we can to limit the spread of the virus and to support both staff and offenders,” Dash said. 

“We are committed to reducing the risks of COVID-19 in all of our operations and keeping our employees, inmates and the public safe. We will continue to work with the Public Health Agency of Canada, local public health, the Canadian Red Cross as well as unions and stakeholders, to take any further steps needed to ensure everyone's safety.”

If you are or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available at all hours. Support can be found at the Canada Suicide Prevention Service website. If you are in immediate danger, you can call 911. You can learn more about suicide prevention in the province at Saskatchewan.ca

-- With Prince Albert Daily Herald files from Peter Lozinski

© Copyright Humboldt Journal

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