With the novel coronavirus outbreak at a federally-run B.C. prison continuing to worsen among inmates and corrections officers, the officers’ union says issues are still plaguing efforts to control the spread.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Saturday that 70 people at the medium-security Mission Institution have now tested positive for COVID-19, including 60 inmates.
One of those inmates is believed to have died due to complications from the disease, officials confirmed Thursday, marking the first inmate death in a federal facility during the health crisis in Canada.
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers says despite efforts from local managers and the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to curb the outbreak, more control measures and better communication are still needed.
Although staff are now no longer moving between different facilities, the union says its members are unable to remain at one post or area of the prison itself, as contact tracing has sent many staff into self-isolation.
“This significantly increases the workload on the limited staff that remain available,” the union’s Pacific regional president Derek Chin said in a statement issued Friday.
The high number of positive cases within the prison, which remains locked down, has also made it nearly impossible to separate those cases from the general inmate population — making personal protective equipment (PPE) “the only line of defence in areas where physical distancing is extremely difficult,” the union said.
“The ideal solution would be to have dedicated spaces to place suspected or positive cases to keep a physical separation from those who are asymptomatic,” the union added. “This is now not possible at Mission Institution.”
Chin also claims the local management has been pushing some correctional officers to return to the prison before their 14-day quarantines are completed, counter to public health guidelines.
“This could cause more of our members or inmates to become sick,” he said.
The union further alleges that they have continued to be left out of contingency planning, which it says has amounted to “nothing more than a table-top paper exercise” performed by local management.
“It is quite evident that the local management did not have a full appreciation as to how viral COVID-19 is,” the statement reads, with the union suggesting the outbreak could have been further contained if staff had been included in the planning.
The CSC has not yet responded to the latest allegations from the union.
However, officials did provide a statement to deny other allegations that inmates were not being provided access to daily showers and basic hygiene products, and that meals had become sporadic and did not contain proper calorie counts.
“The routine developed at the Mission Institution is to allow inmates out of their cells every day to make phone calls to their families and to take a shower,” a spokesperson said, adding basic hygiene products are being supplied once per week.
Meals are being served to inmates in their cells, the CSC added, and the prison is ensuring inmates “receive the required amount of calories daily in the meals they are provided.” The spokesperson did not confirm how many meals were distributed each day.
Masks are being provided to inmates and staff, and cleaning measures have been enhanced at the facility, the CSC said, repeating earlier statements that have been confirmed by the union.
Staff who are forced to be within two metres of an inmate or other staff are also provided gloves, a surgical gown and eye goggles, the CSC added.
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.
Jennifer Metcalfe, the executive director at Prisoners’ Legal Services in Burnaby, told Global News earlier this week that clients incarcerated at the prison have told her organization that the number of cases is likely higher and that people with symptoms aren’t being tested.
The CSC says all up-to-date information about testing is available on its website, which currently aligns with information being repeated by Henry and other provincial health officials.
—With files from Srushti Gangdev