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Coronavirus: 2 inmates at Mission Institution test positive for COVID-19

Okanagan Correctional Centre inmate tests positive for COVID-19
An inmate at the Okanagan Correctional Centre facility near Oliver has tested positive for COVID-19, the first of its kind at a B.C. institution.

Two inmates at the Mission Institution medium-security prison have tested positive for COVID-19, the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers said Saturday.

The 216-bed federal facility has been placed under lockdown to limit the spread of the virus, the union said in a statement.

The union said personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves is currently available to officers that need to interact with the infected inmates, “but supplies are running low.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: B.C. reports 6 new deaths, case confirmed at Okanagan jail

“PPE requirements to perform our work safely continue to be a source of anxiety among the membership,” the union’s statement reads.

On Thursday, a case of COVID-19 was confirmed at the Okanagan Correctional Centre, the first known case at a B.C. correctional facility.

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Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Saturday that no other cases have been confirmed at that facility.

COVID-19: Preventing prison outbreaks in Canada
COVID-19: Preventing prison outbreaks in Canada

Prisons particularly at risk

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Legal experts say correctional facilities are “breeding grounds” for diseases like COVID-19 to spread, with inmates sharing facilities and unable to physically distance from each other.

Vancouver lawyer Kyla Lee says it’s nearly impossible to ensure proper hygiene is being practiced among prison populations, which are also at risk of correctional officers contracting the coronavirus in the community and bringing it inside.

She believes the provincial and federal governments should move to release non-violent offenders and temporarily place them in hotels — boosting the hospitality industry at a time when they’re struggling.

READ MORE: Correctional Service of Canada takes steps to reduce risk of coronavirus entering prisons

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“This would address all the concerns that the public seems to have anytime somebody calls for the release of non-violent offenders: that they won’t go back to jail or continue serving their sentences when this is over, that we won’t be able to monitor them in the community, that they won’t have anywhere safe to go,” she said.

Lee says many of her own clients are non-violent offenders who plead guilty to avoid a longer sentence, and is hearing about the mental toll the pandemic is creating as they remain locked away.

“Now, all of a sudden your life is at risk because you took responsibility,” she said.

Correctional Service of Canada takes steps to prevent COVID-19 entering prisons
Correctional Service of Canada takes steps to prevent COVID-19 entering prisons

BC Corrections says it has been conducting health checks for everyone entering correctional facilities since the pandemic was first detected in the province.

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Asymptomatic inmates have been self-isolated in groups to protect them from infection, a spokesperson added, and in-person visits have been banned unless there are “urgent, exceptional circumstances.”

“Correctional centres have space to support physical distancing,” a statement reads.

READ MORE: Canada’s prisons preparing for coronavirus outbreak, want to limit visits

Infected inmates have been isolated from the general prison populations at both facilities that have seen cases so far, BC Corrections said.

Lee says that practice may be unconstitutional after the BC Court of Appeal ruled that solitary confinement violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in a 2019 ruling.

The Supreme Court of Canada is reviewing that ruling and similar decisions from other provincial courts.