Inmates housed in the medium-security unit of Saskatchewan Penitentiary are alleging a lack of access to cleaning supplies and growing frustration as a COVID-19 outbreak keeps them confined to their cells for 23 and a half hours per day.
The federal institution announced an outbreak of COVID-19 on Dec. 15 when 24 inmates tested positive.
That number has grown to at least 64 inmates and five staff. Without enough room to isolate infected inmates, they remain housed on their medium security range.
Inmates say they get just 20 minutes out of their cells each day, and only allowed access to the showers and the phones. The situation is leading some to growing despair, with one inmate telling a loved one that some sentenced to life in prison are considering suicide.
“All of us guys think we’re gonna die in here,” he said.
“There are guys in here who are crying. They’re afraid they’re not going to go home to their families.”
He said spending hours a day without time to participate in any activities or recreation is leaving him feeling “empty,” “lost” and “angry.”
“I’m losing all my strength,” he said, adding that he believes inmates would be able to follow social distancing and wear masks if a handful are let out a time to spend time on the range and not confined to their cells, but that they aren’t being given the chance.
He also alleged that the inmates don’t receive fresh masks, and that he hasn’t been able to do his laundry in days.
Inmates can’t access the canteen, he said, meaning they don’t have access to cleaning supplies such as soap to keep their living quarters disinfected.
The lack of cleaning supplies is a concern that’s been raised by other inmates as well.
Tracy Lozinski spoke to the Prince Albert Herald after getting off the phone with her boyfriend, who’s due for statutory release on Jan. 5. He asked to be released early so that he could avoid being stuck in a situation with a growing number of COVID-19 cases. The request was denied.
“They are not allowed any supplies at all,” Lozinski (no relation) said.
“They are just sitting there. It’s really frustrating because he could be released and avoid the whole scare.”
The other frustration, Lozinski said, is a lack of communication, let alone the struggles of communicating for a maximum of 20 minutes per day over the phone. In-person visits were already cancelled and the inmates on the infected range also aren’t being allowed to access the parts of the prison where they would be able to connect with family over video.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s stressful,” she said. “What if he does get COVID? (If he comes here) am I at risk? We don’t have any answers.”
Lozinski is one of many outside of the prison grappling with these questions as they prepare for loved ones to be released.
Kyle Banks said he’s heard from multiple family members of old friends locked inside Sask. Pen. At least three are preparing for release dates between now and mid-January.
Banks said he hears the same concerns: no access to the canteen, no personal cleaning products and limited time outside of cells.
That’s worse, he said, than the situation was earlier this year when Banks himself served a few months at the federal institution.
He described situations where sanitation guidelines weren’t followed. The inmate whose phone call audio was leaked to media also said that prior to last week, correctional officers weren’t always wearing their masks.
Banks said he’s “not at all” surprised that there’s an outbreak at Sask. Pen.
“I’m surprised there’s not more.”
CAP calls for inmates to be released
Lozinski isn’t the only one calling on CSC to release those who can go home.
Congress of Aboriginal Peoples national vice-chief Kim Beaudin is calling for the CSC to release all inmates held for non-violent offences, implement immediate testing for COVID-19 for all inmates and staff and to ensure any infected inmates are given separate living quarters from other inmates.
He pointed to disproportionate numbers of Indigenous inmates at Saskatchewan Penitentiary and across Canada.
Beaudin told the Prince Albert Daily Herald that keeping Indigenous inmates under conditions where they are at risk of contracting the virus is essentially, “the death penalty.
“Our people are now facing a death sentence at Saskatchewan Penitentiary due to COVID-19,” he said.
“These are lives being intentionally put at risk, and this is nothing short of genocidal.”
The federal inmate population increased 1.2 per cent since 2010, while the Indigenous inmate population increased by 52.1 per cent.
The rate of Indigenous incarceration within provincial correctional facilities in Saskatchewan is 76 per cent and is 65 per cent at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, which is the federally operated.
Beaudin said the justice system is stacked against Indigenous people and the pandemic has added another deadly element to the mix.
“It is well-known that Indigenous Peoples are mass-incarcerated in Canada. Promises to address this legacy of the intergenerational trauma Indigenous Peoples have endured as the result of genocidal policies and practices enacted by the federal government over several generations,” Beaudin said.
“Commitments to take the necessary measures to end this contemporary manifestation of colonialism have been made, but little has been done.”
Beaudin noted that “during the first wave” there were outbreaks at Mission Institution in British Columbia, several penitentiaries in Quebec, and Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener.
He said CSC “should have learned from the first wave” and implemented a strategy to mitigate the spread of the virus in federal penitentiaries, but has not.
Releasing inmates with sentences that were almost up would have lowered the risk of the virus spreading among prison populations, Beaudin said.
Outbreaks, he said, are now “running rampant” in correctional facilities around Canada and pointed to the situation at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, recent outbreaks at the Stony Mountain Institution north of Winnipeg and the Joyceville Institution in Kingston, Ontario.
“I’m absolutely stunned, but not surprised. Back in March we called for them to release prisoners when their time was almost up. They refused to do that… They had their chance and they blew it,” Beaudin said.
He said that the Correctional Service of Canada, the Parole Board of Canada and the federal cabinet had five months where there were no reported COVID-19 cases linked to penitentiaries to properly prepare for a second wave.
“They knew a second wave was coming and they were ill-prepared. After the first wave, they should have implemented a strategy.”
Beaudin previously worked as a justice of the peace for the province of Saskatchewan for five years, and later as an advocate for incarcerated Indigenous youth. He maintains connections with inmates as part of his role within CAP.
He said inmates have reached out to him fearful for their lives as cases mount in Prince Albert.
One inmate asked Beaudin to tell his friends and family goodbye in case he should die.
“If something happens to him he said he just wants me to get hold of people to let them know what’s going on and that he might not ever see them again,” Beaudin said.
“There are other prisons that are going through the same thing. But there’s a common theme here and that is the government is not telling the truth. There’s no accountability.”
He said the government of Canada is failing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside Canada’s federal penitentiaries across the board.
“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must take control of this crisis and preserve the health and safety of federal prisoners, prison staff, and our communities,” Beaudin said.
He said that “after many months of inaction” and a rise in cases across penitentiaries in several provinces, “it is unacceptable to allow the status quo to continue.”
“On behalf of my people, I am demanding the government of Canada release as many nonviolent prisoners as possible through the many tools that exist to do so,” Beaudin said.
“I also urge that those kept caged in Canada’s colonial federal penitentiaries be given access to the programs, contact with loved ones and volunteers, and supplies required to come out of this crisis alive. Inaction will signal to Indigenous peoples that our lives do not matter and that the federal government remains unable to move past colonialist legacies.”
Beaudin reiterated calls for those responsible for the lack of action to be held accountable and pointed a finger at CSC commissioner Anne Kelly, who he has previously called on to resign.
Beaudin had also called for Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair to bring fresh blood to the CSC leadership. Ideally someone with a background other than corrections, he said.
Neither the CSC nor the office of minister Blair provided direct answers in regards to a COVID-19 strategy by press time.
Blair’s press secretary, Mary-Liz Power, said in a written statement in September that the government has made commitments to expand programs to keep at-risk youth out of the criminal justice system, make drug treatment courts the default option for first-time non-violent offenders, and introduce legislation to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Power said an investment of $448 million for new staff, infrastructure and mental healthcare that would “support enhanced assessment and early diagnosis of inmates at intake and throughout incarceration, enhanced mental health care, support for patient advocacy services and 24-7 health care at designated institutions.”
CSC spokesperson Marie Pier Lecuyer said in September that a critical component of addressing systemic racism at CSC lies in “our ability to listen, learn and take action by working in partnership.”
“We recognize that there is an overrepresentation of Indigenous offenders in our correctional institutions, which is a reflection of the disparities within our society that we must all work to fix — here at CSC as well as within our criminal justice system,” Lecuyer said.
“Addressing this systemic issue takes time and we know there is more work to do. We are committed to ensuring that Indigenous, Black and other racialized offenders are afforded the same protections, dignity and treatment as others, consistent with the Canadian Human Rights Act, and CSC’s policies,” Lecuyer said.
The CSC said Commissioner Anne Kelly personally met with the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and has had ongoing correspondence with them this spring about ways to work together.
“We have a positive relationship,” Lecuyer said.
Beaudin, however, had something more to add.
He likened the conditions at Saskatchewan Penitentiary to the colonial practice of giving blankets laced with smallpox to Indigenous people so that they would die.
“It’s like they tore a piece of history from the colonial handbook… Instead of poisoning blankets with smallpox, they’re poisoning the prisons (with COVID-19),” Beaudin said.
“If they can’t step up to the plate, they should just resign.”
“All of them.”
Union says outbreak was “inevitable”
While Beaudin had strong words for senior leadership, the union representing correctional officers said the spread to the penitentiary was “inevitable” given the consistent transfers of inmates in and out of the facility.
Union of Canadian Correctional Officers regional president James Bloomfield said the focus now is ensuring the rest of the facility can remain free from the virus.
“It’s a reality of how this system works with the amount of movement from provincial to federal (facilities) and the number of people involved,” he said.
“We know where this came in as far as common sense. What really matters is what happens when it gets in. We have taken every precaution you can imagine coming in that door.”
Sask. Pen houses about 800 inmates, Bloomfield said, and at any given time has about 360 correctional officers. That’s a lot of people all in one, confined space.
One staff member who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity said the facility has strong sanitation requirements in place, but that all it would take is one mistake for a virus like this to spread.
The staff member said they are concerned for the health and wellbeing of the inmates as the virus spreads. Inmates have shared similar concerns about shared spaces such as recreation areas, showers and phones.
While some inmates believe staff don’t care and would rather the institution lockdown, Bloomfield says that’s not the case.
“Everybody is doing their best and I don’t believe there is malice,” Bloomfield said.
“No matter how many bad mistakes have been made along the way. In this situation, we, fortunately, haven’t had any big mistakes. We’ve got everything under control the best we can right now. We don’t have other options here.”
The situation has been hard on guards as well.
Saskatchewan Penitentiary staff won’t be able to spend Christmas with their families but will still be required to go to work after a self-isolation order was sent to all of the facility’s employees Monday.
The order is in place until after Christmas, though one staff member who spoke to the Herald on condition of anonymity indicated it was until Dec. 27.
“We’re on a cruise ship on land. That’s a way to look at an environment like that,” Bloomfield said.
“You’ve got a building that is very old,” he said.
“It has… all open bars and no doors, which makes it very difficult to isolate. The air currents are designed to go through the cells. All of that makes containing the spread that much more difficult.”
While CSC has faced outbreaks before, the public health order to self-isolate is a first.
“All correctional officers that work there have been asked to self-isolate… from their families, from everything,” Bloomfield said.
“This came from absolutely nowhere. Nobody’s happy about this. It’s the first time it’s ever happened to us… across the country, this kind of order. We don’t really have much clarity as to why.”
Employees are also expected to keep working through the isolation order. They suit up in complete PPE.
Bloomfield said that the only relief staff members have had since COVID hit Canada in March has been to go home and spend time with their families.
“That’s now been taken away from them,” he said.
“They’ve been going at this since March with no break. Their stress levels are right through the roof. It’s the most stressful time of the year… and you can’t hug anybody else for the next number of days. The timing could not be any worse.”
With inmates cooped up for longer periods of time, their stress levels are rising, too. That makes what can already be a tense environment more volatile.
“There are two groups this affects the most,” Bloomfield said, “the correctional officers and the inmates. As officers, we know exactly what happens when we keep people closed up for longer periods of time.
“The reality is everybody is stressed right out. It is extremely volatile. You add this kind of stress on both sides of those bars and you end up with a lot of situations that are stress-related. We’re doing the best we can to get through this while trying to make sure we don’t lose any lives.”