COVID-19 outbreak at Saskatoon jail flagged as potentially fatal systemic failure

Click to play video: 'Concerns grow as COVID-19 spreads inside Saskatoon jail' Concerns grow as COVID-19 spreads inside Saskatoon jail
WATCH: As COVID-19 spreads through Saskatchewan, Saskatoon's jail is reporting an outbreak. As Ryan Kessler reports, that's fuelling calls for more prisoner protections. – Nov 27, 2020

Tyler Magnus has lived in an overflow unit at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre for about three months, after he was remanded for breaching a court order following an alleged assault.

Sixteen of the 20 men on his unit have tested positive for COVID-19, he said.

Read more: Nearly 100 Saskatoon jail inmates and staff diagnosed with COVID-19

“They tell us to stay one moose-length apart, but you can’t even do that here,” Magnus said Monday in an interview over the phone.

The 27-year-old is among a chorus of voices chastising the province for its handling of a coronavirus outbreak at the Saskatoon jail, which has put hundreds of lives at risk.

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“I’m depressed and I want answers,” Magnus said.

As of Monday evening, 26 jail employees and 116 of 476 inmates are sick, according to the Saskatchewan Government Employees’ Union.

Magnus received a negative test result on Monday, but has symptoms that run the gamut: a cough, constant headache and burning eyes.

“The only way that we’re going to fight this virus off is for us to be put into individual cells and quarantined for 14 days,” he said.

No escape from the virus

The outbreak is a major systemic failure, highlighting pre-existing problems with the corrections system, Saskatchewan treaty commissioner Mary Culbertson said.

Culbertson worked at the jail as a corrections officer between 2006 and 2007, and said it was overcrowded.

“It was very unsafe, and I’m not talking about (for) me,” she told Global News.

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Inmates and advocates have called for the early release of remanded and non-violent offenders, but the province has said that’s not going to happen.

Magnus said all of the men on his unit share one shower. Some of them are so sick, they don’t get out of bed, he said.

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Read more: 72 new coronavirus cases reported at Saskatoon Correctional Centre

Magnus questions why, despite his negative test result, he’s stuck on a unit where most people are sick.

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety has been advised to restrict the movement of people between units.

“Though some offenders on affected units at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre have tested negative, there is potential the virus is still in the incubation stage,” spokesperson Noel Busse said in an emailed statement.

“Even if an individual is not currently symptomatic, they could still potentially be a carrier of the virus due to their close contact with a positive case.”

Staff also have to keep incompatible inmates apart, like rival gang members.

The jail has portable trailers for additional space, but they aren’t operational, according to the ministry. Busse said it’s exploring options for accommodations, but no decisions have been made.

‘I see the system failing’

There was a brief hunger strike at the centre over COVID-19 concerns, but Busse said all inmates were accepting food by dinnertime Monday.

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People who have sounded the alarm have been widely ignored, Culbertson said. She said the province should have a watchdog for the prison system.

“(Corrections officials) need to listen to those advocates who are saying, ‘It’s not safe here; it’s overcrowded here,’” she said.

“We need to make changes to the system.”

Corrections is trying to reduce the spread by mandating masks and halting admissions to the jail. Officials said they continue to test inmates and staff at all facilities.

The founder of a support group that works with incarcerated men said the efforts may be too little, too late. 

“They obviously failed on having a plan in place,” said Christopher Merasty, CEO of Men of the North.

He said he’s saddened by the outbreak, which disproportionately affects Indigenous men and their families.

Read more: Indigenous incarceration rates in Saskatchewan 65% federally, 75% provincially

While Busse did not share data specific to the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, statistics from February report Indigenous people make up 75 per cent of the population in Saskatchewan’s provincial jails. The overrepresentation is widely reported to be rooted in intergenerational trauma.

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Merasty and Culberston said it’s tough to see inmates take another hit from an already-traumatizing system.

More needs to be done to protect them, Merasty said.

“They’re still human beings and we still need to do what we need to protect them, regardless of whether or not you’re on the wrong side of the law,” he said.

“I see the system failing, and it’s been failing for generations.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Inmates at Saskatoon jail under quarantine after possible link to COVID-19' Coronavirus: Inmates at Saskatoon jail under quarantine after possible link to COVID-19
Coronavirus: Inmates at Saskatoon jail under quarantine after possible link to COVID-19 – Mar 11, 2020

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