COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Saskatchewan’s jails.
Several COVID-19 outbreaks have been declared during recent weeks at the province’s correctional centres, including Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert.
A report from the Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety suggests the situation is not improving.
As of Monday afternoon, there were more than 200 active cases among Saskatchewan inmates in provincially-operated jails.
The ministry has reported 107 active cases at the Prince Albert Correctional Centre, 85 active cases at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre and nine active cases at the Regina Correctional Centre.
In addition, the Saskatoon jail has 41 active cases among correctional staff, while there are 33 cases in Prince Albert and nine in Regina.
The ministry provided a statement on the situation on Wednesday to Global News saying corrections continues to follow a number of precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within their facilities.
This includes rapid testing for all staff and PCR and rapid testing for all inmates.
“Testing and screening of all inmates for COVID-19 is completed upon admission and again after 15 days,” the ministry stated on Wednesday. “Inmates are also tested if they are symptomatic, are identified as requiring testing due to contact tracing, or being moved to a reduced custody setting. New admissions are also quarantined for 14 days.”
Other measures taken by corrections staff include masking requirements for inmates and staff, enhanced cleaning protocols and offering vaccinations to eligible inmates.
Nursing staff also monitor symptoms from inmates during regular rounds.
“Corrections works with facility staff and public health authorities to ensure inmates receive the care that they need. In the event an inmate requires health services beyond what is available in a correctional facility, staff will ensure this is provided,” the statement continued.
Additional measures have also been recently implemented, according to the ministry.
In-person visits are currently suspended, which means inmates can communicate with family, friends and professionals either virtually or by phone.
Double masking with a surgical or procedural mask is required for all staff and contractors while in a correctional centre. Inmates are also required to wear two masks when outside of their cells.
Take-home rapid test kits are also being provided to staff.
Pierre Hawkins, who serves as public legal counsel for the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, said the province’s overcrowded jails make the situation more difficult when trying to limit the spread of the virus.
“We’ve got to remember that these are poorly ventilated facilities where a lot of people are put together near one another, and as a result, it’s hard to stop the spread,” suggested Hawkins.
He also noted that there’s a balance to be struck in this particular situation. While advocates want to see transmission be reduced within these facilities, Hawkins said restrictions in place are also affecting the mental health of prisoners considering in-person visits have been suspended.
“They are having to spend a lot more time than usual inside of their own cells by themselves. There’s also the suspension on visits, which harms the family and programming sides,” Hawkins added.
“We have to make sure that when people are released from correctional facilities that their mental health is taken care of and they have been provided some sort of rehabilitative services.”
One recommendation from Hawkins is for the province to aim for an incarceration rate that is more “in line” with what other provinces are doing — particularly with remand cases.
Something the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan has advocated for since the beginning of the pandemic is for fewer people to be held on remand and for more sentences to be managed in the community under the supervision of the Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety.
“We know for one thing that Saskatchewan jails more people than other provinces do — both on the remand side and sentence side,” he discussed.
“We could have fewer people in these spaces, which would result in less spread of disease.”
Hawkins added that this is an issue that should be addressed as a community, pointing to higher rates of COVID-19 within communities translating to rising cases within prisons.