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Inside the Canadian Prison Hardest Hit by the Coronavirus Pandemic

One inmate has died and at least 60 have tested positive for COVID-19 at Mission Institution. We spoke to a prisoner on what conditions are like inside the federal prison.

by Justin Ling
Apr 21 2020, 7:33pm

The Mission Institution is pictured Tuesday, April 14, 2020. COVID-19 has infected several of the inmates and correctional officers at the facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Even as the coronavirus outbreak was emerging in federal prisons, staff were being told not to wear personal protective equipment. The Canadian government only began providing masks and gloves after healthcare workers reported unsafe work conditions, despite plenty of early warning that prisons were a ticking time bomb for the spread of the virus.

And now, as of yesterday, 177 federal inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Provincial institutions have also been hard hit.

The worst outbreak in the country is at Mission Institution, a medium-security prison near Abbotsford, British Columbia, where 60 inmates have tested positive for the virus. One inmate has already died, and others are in hospital. Ten staff members have also tested positive for coronavirus.

Dillan Cote, an inmate at Mission, told VICE on Friday that, right up until the cases began to spiral out of control in the prison, the administration was failing to guard against the virus.

The inmates requested the jail take the temperature of corrections officers showing up for work, to ensure that none were unwittingly transporting the virus into the prison. “We don't get it. They refused that,” Cote said. The inmates requested that they be fed in their cells, rather than all 250 of them crowding into the cafeteria. “It was denied.”

On April 3, after they began reporting cases, Mission put the entire prison on lockdown.

“We didn't even have showers for [the first] five days of the lockdown,” Cote said. Since then, inmates have only been let out for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, sometimes every other day, to shower and make a phone call. “No exercise, no fresh air.”

“One of the guys who is sick is one of the unit cleaners,” Cote said. “And he was out the other day cleaning the unit.” Cote says their cleaning supplies are so diluted with water that he’s not even sure it’s helping.

The conditions are putting the entire prison on edge, he said.

“I feel like the whole jail is on the verge of having a freak out, or doing something,” Cote said. “Because they're treating us poorly. We're not getting fed properly. You know, it takes a toll on your mental health, for sure.”

Even since they’ve been in lockdown, the prison is not taking basic steps to prevent transmission of the virus.

“I just asked the officer today: Why aren't we getting hand sanitizer in there? They’re like: ‘Because you guys drink it,’” Cote said.

As the pandemic unfolded, and cases began to emerge in federal prisons, the Trudeau government repeatedly insisted it had the outbreak under control.

On March 13, Correctional Services Canada said that they had in place the necessary “medical responses, equipment requirements, and protocols” for an influenza outbreak. On March 23 they wrote that “employees are actively screening anyone that must enter institutions.” Two days after that they wrote that they had taken stock of their personal protective equipment and that they would “purchase additional supplies as necessary.” The same day, they wrote that they had “distributed additional soap, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer to staff and inmates.”

VICE wrote in late March that few of those precautions were actually being implemented.

But by April 2, healthcare workers on British Columbia’s lower mainland—the area which includes MIssion—said they were not being given adequate protection. A letter to Correctional Services Canada, provided to VICE, said: “We feel that the direction for healthcare staff to not use PPE (ie gloves and mask) during the 'hands on' intake process of inmates, who are being placed in the Medical isolation Unit, creates an unsafe work environment."

While Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam says testing is key to fighting COVID-19 in prisons, just 533 inmates have been tested since the pandemic began. The federal prison population sits at about 15,000.

A new directive only went out on April 8, encouraging all staff to wear masks. Even then, the administration is “dolling [PPE] out as they see fit,” a healthcare worker says. Multiple sources inside these institutions say some corrections officers are not wearing masks.

Inmates at more than a half dozen prisons across the country have not been given masks.

Prison transfers have continued as well. An inmate from Mission was moved to another facility nearby, and later tested positive. Sherri Maier, a prison advocate, was told by inmates at other institutions in British Columbia, and as far away as Saskatchewan, that inmates from Mission are being transferred into those institutions.

“This is ridiculous, but seems to be the plan CSC has taken,” Maier said. “Rather than release guys, they transfer them.”

There are several federal prisons near Mission which, one healthcare worker says, are not preparing. “There’s no cases there, so they’ve got their heads in the sand and their fingers crossed,” they said.

Calls have mounted for Correctional Services Canada to begin releasing inmates.

Last Thursday, I requested an interview with Public Safety Minister Bill Blair. “We aren’t able to accommodate an interview today,” his office responded Friday.

While he had no time to speak to journalists, Blair spent that Friday evening on a Facebook townhall with a Liberal MP. On that call, Blair was asked about releasing inmates.

“I can tell you that 600 people have already been released just in the last month that we identified as being eligible for release,” Blair said, though he clarified Monday that most of those 600 inmates were released as part of their regular parole eligibility.

Cote is not eligible for parole for another few years. The guy in the cell next to him, however, is slated to be released in six months. “He's wondering if he can get out, because his life's in danger,” he said. Other inmates are still being sent back to prison on minor parole violations.

One offender, who was released earlier this month from a CSC-run halfway house in Toronto on a 14-day medical leave pass, was told to return to the facility this week because his pass expired. One of the offenders in the halfway house has COVID-19 symptoms, he said.

Provinces, meanwhile, have taken drastic steps to empty out jails. Ontario and the Northwest Territories have reduced their prison population by a quarter. The courts have been weighing the threat of COVID-19 heavily in deciding bail and sentencing. Government lawyers, however, are still seeking jailtime for many offenders.

For weeks, Minister Blair’s office has refused interview requests on the crisis hitting Canada’s prisons. While various members of Trudeau’s cabinet involved in the pandemic response have participated in daily media briefings, Blair has not been available to journalists. Meanwhile, Correctional Services Canada has refused to provide basic information about the outbreaks.

There is a lot of room for things to get worse. The Toronto Star has reported that 60 inmates at a provincial jail in Brampton have tested positive for the virus. In America, a myriad of prisons are experiencing massive outbreaks, including the notorious Rikers prison, where more than 350 inmates are sick.

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