The conditions at B.C.’s Mission Institution — the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak at a federal institution in the country — are far worse than the Correctional Service of Canada is saying, according to a B.C. lawyer who advocates for prisoners.
Fifty-four inmates in Mission’s medium-security unit were confirmed to have the virus as of Wednesday, according to the latest numbers on the CSC’s website. One of the inmates has died, becoming Canada’s first federal inmate to pass away due to COVID-19.
But Jennifer Metcalfe, the executive director at Prisoners’ Legal Services in Burnaby, told Global News that clients incarcerated at the prison have told her organization that the number of cases is likely higher.
Inmates who have already tested positive and been placed in isolation aren’t being given soap or cleaning supplies, Metcalfe said.
“They’re only receiving two meals a day. They’re not able to supplement their meals with canteen items that they buy on their own usually,” she said. “They don’t have any access to canteen. So people are going hungry.”
Two meals a day, sometimes served cold, is actually an improvement, Metcalfe said.
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“The reports that we’ve received are that the meals have been pretty sporadic, especially in the beginning of the lockdown when they were getting one meal a day on some days and sometimes it would come partially frozen.”
According to Metcalfe, clients have also raised concerns about being able to maintain proper hygiene.
“People are reporting that they’re not getting daily showers. They’re saying that they’ve had maybe three showers in the last 15 days,” she said.
“That’s what someone just reported today who’s on the isolation unit who has tested positive for COVID-19.”
Metcalfe’s allegations are at odds with what corrections officials have said about Mission Institution.
Last week, Global News asked CSC regional health director Sav Bains about how an inmate’s rights are being respected when the person is in isolation.
“Ensuring shower routines, ensuring there’s access to phones to call their families, ensuring that three meals a day are provided to them,” Bains said on Saturday.
There was a difference between solitary confinement and “medical isolation,” he added, and the health and safety of staff and inmates takes priority.
Metcalfe also raised concerns about staff not being given gloves or masks at one point.
“It’s only recently that they’ve been issued gloves and masks. And we have reports that even when they are wearing gloves, they’re touching keys and touching doors and buttons, and passing food to people in their cells and then going and getting somebody else’s food,” she said.
“So we have concerns about that and just the general lack of hygiene in the unit. Someone described it as a pigsty with garbage everywhere.”
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers has also voiced concerns about conditions at the prison.
On Monday, Pacific regional president Derek Chin called for the immediate distribution of surgical masks for inmates and proper personal protective gear for staff, as well as an immediate freeze on the movement of staff between institutions and between posts within the Mission facility.
The union has also alleged that Mission employees who were exposed to the coronavirus were pressured to return to work prior to receiving test results or having completed 14 days of self-isolation as required by law.
Corrections Canada has said staff are not working at other institutions, and that the 14-day self-isolation requirement is “reviewed prior to return to their home site on a case-by-case basis.”
A mobile medical unit was set up at Abbotsford Regional Hospital on Tuesday to help coordinate the medical response, as well as to protect health workers and help limit the number of guards who had to be physically present at the hospital.
Global News has reached out to Bains again, as well as the headquarters of the Correctional Service of Canada and the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers for comment.