People incarcerated at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre and Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert began a hunger strike on Monday to protest Tell’s position in cabinet.
“She should have met her mandate in protecting those within her authority to protect,” said Cory Cardinal, who organized the hunger strike.
“She needs to apologize to staff and inmates and the general public for her refusal, her negligence, her dismissive attitude, which exacerbated the outbreak by not taking proactive measures.”
Prisoners’ rights advocate Sherri Maier said Cardinal was taken off his unit shortly before noon on Monday, likely as a punitive measure for starting the protest.
Maier estimated roughly 90 people are participating in the hunger strike. She sent a letter to Tell on Monday, calling for her resignation.
“She obviously has failed to do her job,” Maier told Global News.
Seventy-eight inmates and 15 corrections staff across the province are sick, according to the Saskatchewan Government Employees’ Union. As of Monday afternoon, 203 inmates and 87 staff have recovered from COVID-19.
There are 68 active cases at the Regina Correctional Centre – an outbreak that started to ramp up last month.
In an emailed statement, Tell said the wellbeing of inmates is a priority.
“We are aware that there was a tray refusal at Saskatoon Correctional Centre and Pine Grove Correctional Centre and our focus continues to be the health and safety of the inmates and staff, which includes nutrition,” the statement says.
“Staff will continue to work with advocates and inmates to resolve this situation.”
Tell said inmates with concerns can file a formal complaint.
“Corrections staff are dedicated to working with inmates to address their concerns, and we encourage them to work with staff towards the same goal,” Tell said.
She highlighted precautionary measures her ministry has taken, including quarantining new admissions for 14 days. The ministry has also mandated masks in jails, enhanced cleaning, cancelled in-person visits and continues to test inmates and staff at all facilities.
Ministry spokesperson Noel Busse said voluntary surveillance testing was made available to Regina Correctional Centre staff last week.
“We are reviewing what resources and training would be required to implement voluntary COVID-19 surveillance testing for inmates in provincial correctional centres,” Busse said in an emailed statement.
Advocates have repeatedly flagged concerns about overcrowding and have called for the release of remanded and non-violent people. On Monday, the ministry doubled down on its refusal to release anyone early, and said it does not have legal authority to release remanded people.
Saskatchewan jails are 77 per cent full, Busse said.
“Custody counts have decreased considerably since the beginning of the outbreak at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre in late November,” he said in an emailed statement.
The ministry set up portable trailers at the Regina and Saskatoon jails to house sick inmates. Until recently, only the Regina units were operational.
Dana Blackie, who is remanded at Saskatoon correctional, said he has tested negative for COVID-19 three times, but has been housed with infected inmates.
“I don’t feel like (Tell) has really taken her job that seriously,” he told Global News over the phone.
“If we’re going to do anything to have changes to the policies in here… now is the time to do it.”
NDP renews call for resignation
Nicole Sarauer, the Saskatchewan NDP’s corrections critic, said people’s lives are at risk because of ministerial inaction.
Sarauer called for Tell’s resignation last month, after Tell said she would not try to determine the source of a sweeping outbreak at Saskatoon correctional.
“We’ve since seen her do little in terms of addressing the problems around COVID in the jails and as a result, the call for resignation still stands,” Sarauer said in an interview on Monday.
“The province deserves a minister who takes their role seriously and she has failed to do that.”