British Columbia

11 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in outbreak at Mission Institution

An outbreak of COVID-19 has hit a federal correctional facility in B.C., confirming the fears of prisoner and public health advocates who have been calling for the release of non-violent inmates during the pandemic.

Federal prison is now on lockdown to prevent further spread of the virus

Canada has about 100 COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates at provincial and federal prisons, according to the latest figures released. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

An outbreak of COVID-19 has hit a federal correctional facility in B.C., confirming the fears of prisoner and public health advocates who have been calling for the release of non-violent inmates and those awaiting trial during the pandemic.

The medium-security Mission Institution now has 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19, all prisoners, according to Correctional Services Canada statistics.

Prison officials announced a lockdown late Wednesday afternoon in a news release saying meals will be delivered to inmates' cells. There will also be enhanced cleaning to limit the virus's spread. 

Thirty-six people have been tested at the prison, with 21 results still pending.

 'Public health issue'

Research by Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, has revealed that unsanitary conditions, close quarters and number of prisoners with underlying chronic health conditions make COVID-19 particularly dangerous inside such institutions — and that danger can quickly spread to nearby communities.

"We need to fight the spread of COVID-19 by diverting and decarcerating as many people as possible, not just to protect prisoners, but also staff members who return home and to our communities," said Piché.

He noted the example of the Port-Cartier Institution in Quebec, where, on March 26, an employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Within days, a total of nine workers at the facility were home with mild symptoms of COVID-19.

Piché said this outbreak is now manifesting in the surrounding community, which is inevitable as prison staff head home.

"It's not just a prisoner health or a staff health issue — this is a public health issue," he said.

'Petri dish prisons'

Piché has also long urged correctional officials to release non-violent prisoners if possible.

Of the 1,800 prisoners in B.C. jails, Piché said 1,100 are awaiting trials or court hearings, so their cases are untested. Many involve non-violent crimes. 

Piché said their health is being unnecessarily put at risk.

"There are likely dozens, if not hundreds, of people who could be safely let out into the community immediately who could socially isolate at home instead of being in these petri dish prisons," he said.

There are 35 case of COVID-19 among Canadian inmates in federal institutions and six in provincial.

One of the latter is a prisoner at the Okanagan Correctional Centre in Oliver, B.C., whose diagnosis was confirmed April 1. That prisoner's symptoms were mild and no one else in their unit was symptomatic, according to a spokesperson for B.C.'s Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.

Across the country, Correctional Services confirmed Wednesday that 60 staff at Canadian prisons have tested positive for COVID-19. 

None are in B.C., according to a spokesperson for the province.

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend

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