A COVID-19 outbreak at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary has grown to 138 cases among staff and inmates.
As of Dec. 22, 123 inmates and 12 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary’s medium-security unit and there are three reported cases in the maximum-security unit, according to a statement from the Correctional Service of Canada.
Of those cases, nine inmates in medium security have recovered. The remaining are considered active.
The first case at the prison was identified on Dec. 12 in the medium-security unit. The Saskatchewan Health Authority subsequently declared an outbreak there and the Canadian Red Cross is now on site advising staff, according to the CSC.
The SHA issued a public health order to all staff at the institution on Dec. 20 asking staff to avoid mixing with others including people in their own homes and advising them to go straight to and from work. The letter stated was to continue to at least Dec. 27.
“Obviously when you get an order like that a few days before Christmas, everybody gets extremely upset and tries to figure out what the hell happened,” said James Bloomfield, the Prairie regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which represents officers at federal institutions.
Bloomfield said similar letters have not been sent to staff at other federal institutions, including Stony Mountain in Manitoba, where more than 250 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and nearly 80 cases are active. He says the union wants to know what about the outbreak at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary triggered the letter.
Correctional staff also want clarity on whether the letter is an order or a recommendation, since the wording of different parts of the letter implies both, Bloomfield said.
“At this point, it’s being viewed and assessed as an order,” he said.
The CSC says mass testing is being offered to all staff and all inmates in the maximum-, medium- and minimum-security units, including asymptomatic individuals. Contact tracing is underway for those who have tested positive.
How the virus got into the institution has not yet been determined. Transfers between provincial and federal institutions are continuing despite the pandemic and Bloomfield wonders if the provincial transfers in particular could be a contributing factor.
In an effort to curtail the spread of the virus, only one inmate at a time is allowed on each range, inmates are not able to borrow books from the prison library, and in-person personal visits have been suspended.
Advocates such as Sherri Maier with Beyond Prison Walls Canada are expressing concern about the extended period of time inmates are confined to their cells.
She described it in a letter to the Office of the Correctional Investigator as “inhumane and deteriorating their mental health.”
She said inmates are asking to be let out of their cells four to six at a time, instead of one at a time.
Maier has written to the ombudsman for federal inmates asking for an investigation.
“Sask Pen should have been proactive, they saw places like Mission (Institution in British Columbia) get hit with (C)ovid and that should been their wake up call to do something and be proactive,” she wrote.
Maier suggests the CSC request the assistance of local fire department and paramedics as well as the military and is calling for the federal investigator to look into the sanitation in the units. She said she’s been told that inmates in one unit of the Saskatchewan Penitentiary that garbage is piling up outside their cells because there’s no cleaner to take it out.
The CSC says that, with only one inmate allowed on a range at a time, cleaners are working in the morning, which means garbage is accumulated on ranges in order for large batches to go directly to a garbage truck, which the CSC said is based on a Canadian Red Cross recommendation. It said this is in order to prevent a clean area from being “contaminated” by range garbage.
It says it has hired contract cleaners to assist with “enhanced” cleaning, that cleaning supplies and products are “readily available” for inmates and that there are supplies in each unit including sanitizing wipes for high-touch surfaces such as shower handles and telephones which inmates are encouraged to use.