Calgary lawyer says ‘massive’ correctional centre COVID-19 outbreak stressing province’s inmate population

The Calgary Correctional Centre in Calgary. Global News

A Calgary lawyer says a “massive” COVID-19 outbreak at the Calgary Correctional Centre is putting a strain on the entire province’s correctional system, and shutting down the facility might be the only way to get case numbers under control.

As of Wednesday, 70 inmates had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, along with 17 staff members.

An additional five inmates who previously tested positive were released after finishing their sentences, but were instructed to isolate at home per provincial guidelines, Alberta Health Services said.

Health officials have imposed restrictions on the staff at the institution, limiting their movement from work to home, and then home to work. Between shifts, they’re instructed to isolate at home.

Read more: New staff restrictions announced for Calgary Correctional Centre COVID-19 outbreak

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According to defense lawyer Adriano Iovinelli, the centre is only at 50 per cent capacity, meaning there are currently about 200 inmates there, and the with the surge in cases, new inmates are being turned away.

“Calgary Correctional Centre is not taking inmates right now because of rampant COVID-19 spreading in its institution, so our clients have an option of either going to Lethbridge or another jurisdiction,” he said Wednesday. “They can’t stay here in Calgary to receive a provincial sentence.”

In an emailed statement, AHS said the increase in cases is the result of re-swabbing inmates who previously tested negative for the novel coronavirus, which was done on Tuesday.

“All cases report only mild symptoms, if any,” AHS said. “This outbreak is linked to transmission of COVID-19 within the facility.”

Read more: COVID-19 cases at Calgary Correctional Centre more than double; numbers swell to 55

Those who have tested positive are isolating and are being monitored, AHS said, and contact tracing is underway.

“The facility is on outbreak status; all inmate units are isolated. All movement between units has been suspended, as are transfers/admissions in or out of the facility.”

Iovinelli said inmates are opting to delay sentencing — instead staying at the Calgary Remand Centre doing so-called “hard time” — so they don’t have to go elsewhere to serve their time and be away from family.

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He said the protocols in place at the remand centre are effective and keeping cases low, but said inmates there are still fearful the virus could come into the institution through transmission from another facility.

Iovinelli said the new restrictions for staff are confusing and causing stress for the employees trying to navigate them.

“The concern is, the workers have to have the necessities of life as well. So going from work to home, home to work, they still have to go shopping, they still need necessities — I don’t know how that works,” he said.

“It’s very fearful. Especially if they have families at home, then the question is: does the rest of the family have to be quarantined as well?”

Read more: Some Alberta convicts move to house arrest to mitigate COVID-19 risk: official

Iovinelli said he believes the province should shut down the Calgary Correctional Centre to any new intakes and quarantine staff until it gains control of the outbreak.

AHS said all staff are screened for COVID-19 symptoms before each shift, and inmates are assessed at least twice a day by health-care staff.

“Continuous health teaching and mental health supports are provided for both staff and inmates,” AHS said.

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City staff could see similar isolation restrictions

Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Calgary Emergency Management Agency chief Tom Sampson said if critical services were to be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic — like the city’s drinking water, for example — city employees could be in a similar situation as the Calgary Correctional Centre employees.

“If we ever have a problem with the quality of our drinking water, if we had a problem in 911 one or a problem in our police services, we have some capacity to work with the medical officers of how to find processes which will allow all of our essential functions to go forward,” Sampson said.

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He said right now, all critical services are “fully functioning,” but conversations around contingency plans are ongoing in the event they need to be set in motion. He stressed that residents have a part to play in ensuring those plans don’t need to be used.

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“We look forward to Calgarians helping us push the numbers down and getting the situation under control again,” Sampson said. “I want to reiterate, it’s only a temporary measure. We need push [the numbers] down.”

— With files from Global News’ Tracy Nagai