Prison justice society urges 'drastic action' as COVID-19 spreads in Calgary jail

The president of the Alberta Prison Justice Society is calling for drastic action after almost two-thirds of inmates at the Calgary Correctional Centre contracted COVID-19.

139 cases now linked to the Calgary Correctional Centre, inmates have said conditions are poor

An unidentified female correction officer, left, inside a federal prison. On right, the Calgary Correctional Centre, which is currently experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. (Correctional Service of Canada/Flickr, Google Maps)

The president of the Alberta Prison Justice Society is calling for drastic action after almost two-thirds of inmates at the Calgary Correctional Centre contracted COVID-19.

Amanda Hart-Dowhun outlined the society's concerns in an open letter to Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu and his deputy, as well as to the Alberta Health Services medical director for correctional facilities and the director of the provincial jail.

The outbreak had grown to 139 cases as of Monday, with 103 inmates testing positive who remain at the jail, nine inmates who have since been released and are isolating at home, and 27 staff members, according to Alberta Health Services.

One person is in hospital for assessment, and AHS said all other current positive patients have mild to no symptoms. 

"You must take drastic action to prevent further spread of COVID amongst inmates and staff and to ensure that you are able to maintain basic human rights for the inmates in your care," Hart-Dowhun wrote in the letter dated Monday.

"If you do not take drastic action now, you are risking the lives of a large number of people that you are responsible for keeping safe, and you will be holding inmates in conditions that clearly breach Canadian human rights standards."

The letter cites a CBC News report in which infected inmates described being moved into solitary confinement, where they were living in filthy conditions, sleeping on the floor and receiving intermittent medical attention.

"The conditions outlined above are similar to what one would expect in a third world prison cell, and they are far below the legal standard for holding inmates in Canada. You must take all steps to remedy those conditions immediately," Hart-Dowhun wrote.

That could require releasing inmates temporarily into the community, she said.

In a news release Friday, the vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said it's like a "horror story" inside the jail and workers are exhausted and feel abandoned by the government.

"Our members are saying that inmates have only been wearing masks for a week," said Bobby-Joe Borodey. "They were only given masks after the number of cases hit double figures."

Blaise Boehmer, spokesperson for the justice minister, said by their nature, protective health measures like medically isolating inmates to prevent the spread of infection can result in changes to inmate routines.

Boehmer said inmates are still seeing basic needs met, like regular meals, receiving their medications and having mattresses to sleep on. 

He said a number of outbreak measures are in place, including enhanced cleaning, physical distancing and use of personal protective equipment. 

He referred questions relating to inmates' medical care to AHS. 

With files from CBC's Sarah Rieger


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