'We're guinea pigs,' says inmate as cases surge to 234 at Calgary Remand Centre

A COVID-19 outbreak at the Calgary Remand Centre has ballooned this week to 234 active cases as of Thursday, including inmates and staff.

Fort Saskatchewan correctional officer dies after testing positive for COVID-19

The Calgary Remand Centre, shown on May 9, 2020. The facility is currently dealing with a large coronavirus outbreak. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

A COVID-19 outbreak at the Calgary Remand Centre has ballooned this week to 234 active cases — including inmates and staff — but facility and health representatives say they are handling the situation according to protocol. That includes quarantining new inmates and isolating those who test positive.

As of Friday, 198 inmates, 35 correctional staff members — not including Alberta Health Services staff — and one contractor have tested positive at the remand centre.

This is up from the 41 cases reported at the end of November.

Also on Friday, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees announced that a correctional officer at the Fort Saskatchewan Correction Centre died after contracting the virus. The union did not name him but say he is believed to have been in his 50s.

"It has not been confirmed to us where he contracted the virus, but there has been a significant outbreak at the correctional facility," said Susan Slade, vice-president of AUPE, in the news release. 

Cody Lebeuf is a current inmate at the Calgary Remand Centre, and one of the positive cases.

He takes issue with how the virus has been handled there, and alleges he got sick after being put in a cell with someone infected with the virus.

I just don't feel like we're people, like we don't have a right for protection.- Cody Lebeuf, inmate at the Calgary Remand Centre

"I was fine until they forced me to live with sick people, and they put them in my cell before the test results even came back," said Lebeuf.

"And then we get it and they triple bunk us, throw us all on the same unit … so we're always in our cell. It's inhumane."

He says the experience is dehumanizing.

"I just don't feel like we're people, like we don't have a right for protection. I feel let down, abandoned by the government like we're guinea pigs. I don't know, I just feel like they don't care … like we don't exist," he said.

AHS, which is handling the situation, confirmed the Calgary Remand Centre is on outbreak status and that all inmate units are isolated, with no movement allowed between them.

The remand centre has capacity for 684 inmates, and when asked how many inmates are currently being held there, a representative for the Ministry of the Justice and Solicitor General said that number fluctuates daily, sometimes hourly.

Representing inmates

Chad Haggerty is a student-at-law at Craig Hooker Shiskin and has six clients in the Calgary Remand Centre — three of whom have tested positive. Lebeuf is not one of his clients.

Haggerty says he's heard from his clients and other lawyers representing clients that before December, "cleaning supplies were short, were rarely provided or weren't provided in sufficient quantity."

"From the people I'm talking to, it sounds like it's scary as heck, and there's a pervasive feeling that if somebody doesn't have COVID, they will shortly," he said Friday on the Calgary Eyeopener.

Chad Haggerty, a criminal defence lawyer, has 6 clients a the Calgary Remand Centre, 3 of whom have tested positive for COVID-19. (Katie Nielsen)

"It's scary for them … and each of the situations they've had a negative test and had somebody transfer into their cell and then subsequently had a positive test. So, that's concerning."

Haggerty says the situation may not be getting public attention because the persons affected are being held at the remand.

"A lot of people look at people that are detained and have some version of the thought … 'they shouldn't have put themselves there,'" said Haggerty.

"The reality is that the majority of people in remand centres have not been convicted of a crime … they're accused of something, and even if they are convicted of a crime, they still demand and deserve appropriate treatment to be properly cared for."

He says this outbreak also affects provincial employees, like health-care workers, who will go out into the community.

AHS said in a written statement that staff are screened for COVID-19 symptoms before each shift and that inmates are checked on at least twice a day by AHS staff.

They also said mental health supports are available for staff and inmates.

Safety measures

AHS said in a statement that "isolation and monitoring of the positive cases is underway as per public health direction. All inmates and staff have been tested for COVID-19," and that contact tracing is ongoing.

AHS added that enhanced cleaning protocols are in place, as well as the use of PPE, and that mask use is "ongoing" when physical distancing is not possible.

The Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General, which runs the Calgary Remand, said in a statement that sick inmates are grouped together.

"Inmates who have tested positive are separated into small groups, as per medical officer of health guidelines," and that "new inmates are tested for COVID-19 upon arrival and placed in medical quarantine units for 14 days, separate from the main population and under the care of AHS. If they test positive or show symptoms while in quarantine, they are immediately moved to the medical isolation units."

They added that some inmates may be held in different areas than they would be normally.

"By their nature, many of the protective health measures implemented in the affected units in the Calgary Remand Centre, such as medically isolating inmates to prevent infection spread, can result in changes such as separating inmates into different spaces than normal." 

Currently, AHS said, no visitors are allowed at any of the facilities other than required visits by professionals — and in those cases, glass barriers are used.

As of Friday, the number of active COVID cases at provincial correctional facilities and remand centres are:

  • Calgary Correctional Centre (Spyhill) — zero.
  • Calgary Remand Centre — 234 (198 inmates, 35 staff, and 1 contractor).
  • Edmonton Remand Centre — 58 (41 inmates, 16 staff and 1 contracted staff).
  • Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre — 46 (37 inmates, 9 staff).
  • Peace River Correctional Centre — 2 (1 inmate and 1 staff).
  • Red Deer Remand Centre — 4 (1 inmate and 3 staff).
  • Lethbridge Correctional Centre — 1 inmate (community acquired).

In an email, a spokesperson with the office of the Alberta Ombudsman said that of the approximately 365 COVID-19-related complaints the office has received since March, 40 are from provincial correctional facilities.

Almost 63 per cent of those came from remand centres, the spokesperson said.

"The situation in Alberta's provincial correctional centres is very concerning. If an inmate's complaints are not being addressed to their satisfaction, they are guaranteed the right to make a complaint to the Ombudsman," the spokesperson said. 

"We will consider each complaint and suggest ways issues can be addressed. Matters that advance to a full investigation by our office will generate recommendations for future improvement to ensure administrative processes are applied fairly."

With files from Elizabeth Withey and the Calgary Eyeopener.