British Columbia

'It's horrifying': Physicians and lawyers say coronavirus outbreak at B.C. prison could have been prevented

Lawyers who work with inmates at the federal facility say the outbreak of 24 cases is concerning especially since Correctional Service Canada was only reporting two cases earlier this week.

Number of COVID-19 cases rose to 24 on Thursday, says Correctional Service Canada

Dr. John Farley is an infectious disease physician who has been treating inmates in the Mission Prison for more than 12 years. He says not enough has been done to address the outbreak at the federal institution. (Maggie Macpherson/CBC)

Correctional Service Canada is now reporting 24 cases of COVID-19 at the Mission Institution in B.C.'s Fraser Valley, as the medium-security prison continues its lockdown. 

Three correctional officers at the prison have also tested positive and are now isolating at home.

According to Sav Bains, a regional director of Health Services for CSC, one infected inmate from the Mission prison has now been transferred to the Abbotsford Regional Hospital.

The man was first taken to the Pacific Regional Treatment Centre, a federal institution in Abbotsford, B.C., that serves as a hospital for prisoners in the area. But the inmate ​​​​​was moved again because he needs a ventilator and there aren't any in the prison hospital or the Mission Institution. 

Lawyers who work with inmates at the federal facilities say the outbreak is concerning especially since CSC was only reporting two cases earlier this week. 

"I think it's horrifying," said Adrienne Smith, a Vancouver lawyer who has clients at the Mission prison.

"I think it will be very difficult if not impossible to prevent a broad outbreak at any of the correctional facilities in British Columbia," Smith added. 

The Mission Institution has conducted 43 tests, with 18 pending as of Friday.

'Will I make it out alive?'

Those who work in prisons say it's not enough and inmates are bracing for the worst.

"There's concern that 'I don't know if I will make it out alive,'" said Dr. John Farley, an infectious disease doctor who has worked with inmates at the Mission Institution for 12 years. 

He says testing should be done on those with COVID-19 symptoms as well as asymptomatic inmates, correctional officers and nurses who work at the prison.

"Rigorous testing could have been instituted much earlier," he said. 

Farley says those in the federal prison system are "extremely vulnerable," with people over 50 accounting for 25 per cent of the population and some with HIV, hepatitis C, and other serious health conditions and addictions. 

Correction Service Canada does not know how the first case came into the Mission prison.

Bains told CBC News that all inmates at Mission are now confined to their cells as staff try to contain the outbreak.

Inmates who show symptoms of COVID-19 are being  tested and held on a separate range within the prison.  

Jennifer Metcalfe is the executive director of the West Coast Prison Justice Society. She helped to organize an open letter addressed to federal and provicnial governments to release some inmates from prison until the spread of the coronavirus is under control. (Submitted by Jennifer Metcalfe)

The CSC said it is continuing to suspend inmate visits, work releases for inmates and all inter-regional and international transfers, and has also suspended programming and non-essential work and has implemented modified routines to limit comings and goings.   

'Extremely worried'

The Mission prison's lockdown has advocates worried about the mental health of inmates.

"We are not even getting calls from people at Mission anymore," said Jennifer Metcalfe, the executive director of West Coast Prison Justice Society. 

"The last call that we received came from a prisoner who said they are locked up all day, very little time out of the cell, if any," she said.

Her group organized an open letter signed by 100 medical professionals calling on the federal and provincial government to release prisoners to protect public health.   

The letter read that "the window to prevent the spread in correctional facilities is closing."

The signatories want governments to stop admitting people to jails and prisons unless absolutely necessary, to release as many people as possible, and to consider early or temporary release for people who have chronic health conditions or are age 50 or above. 

While some provincial institutions are releasing inmates in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, federal prisons have yet to follow suit.  

Bains said that could change, although he did not have a specific timeline of when inmate releases could happen. 

PPE for correctional officers

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers says it is working to ensure its members are supplied with protective gear while on the job.

But for now, staff members will have one mask to use for two shifts, the union says.

If a staff member has to be within two metres of a prisoner who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, a range of protective material will be provided, the union said in an email.

The B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU), which represents 1,700 staff at provincial prisons, says it has heard a range of safety concerns from its members.

Provincial prison staff have expressed concerns about being able to enforce social distancing protocols while working, as well as a lack of hand sanitization, the union's president says.

"Our role, obviously, is to keep our members as safe as possible but also the inmate population safe as well, so yes, we're pushing for better safety measures,'' said Stephanie Smith, president of the BCGEU.

Measures include Plexiglas barriers at officer stations as well as better screening of inmates, she added.

About the Author

Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea? angela.sterritt@cbc.ca

With files from Canadian Press

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