Alberta jails breaching pandemic protocols, lawyers warn province

A group of Alberta lawyers says ongoing violations of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at Alberta jails is putting inmates at staff at high risk.

Very small number of infected inmates reflects the system is working, province says

The exterior of the Edmonton Remand Centre is seen on a sunny day.
A prisoners' rights group says jail staff aren't consistently following measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

A group of Alberta lawyers says ongoing violations of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at Alberta jails is putting inmates and staff at high risk.

The Alberta Prison Justice Society (APJS), an organization of lawyers who promote the rights of prisoners, say members consistently receive complaints that staff are not wearing masks or maintaining physical distancing.

Inmates say they don't have access to masks or sufficient cleaning supplies and they're forced into close proximity with other inmates, the APJS says.

Those concerns are contained in a letter sent to Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Minister of Justice Doug Schweitzer on Wednesday.

"As the Chief Medical Officer of Health in Alberta and the Justice Minister for Alberta, you both are responsible for ensuring that people within our jails are safe," wrote Amanda Hart-Dowhun, APJS president.

"When this pandemic infects the jails, there will be catastrophic consequences including serious illness and death for inmates and for the wider community. You must intervene immediately before this occurs."

The letter calls for the province to conduct random audits to determine compliance, and publicly release the results. 

This week an inmate at the Edmonton Remand Centre (ERC) tested positive for COVID-19. Between March 16 and July 15, Alberta Health Services confirmed eight cases of COVID-19 inmate infections within provincial correctional centres.

The letter cites a June court decision that also raised concerns about COVID-19 protocol at the remand centre.

Initially, D.H., as he's identified in the ruling, was denied bail by the provincial court. He's charged with sexual interference in a case involving a 13-year-old complainant. His previous criminal record includes aggravated sexual assault.

But an Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench justice agreed to review his bail after concluding that the COVID-19 pandemic and a revised release plan amounted to a change in circumstances. Justice Donna Shelley said lung disease and HIV put D.H. at great risk should he contract COVID-19.

"While the [Alberta Health Services] and ERC may have developed a guide aimed at minimizing the risks of infection at ERC, the evidence is clear that its implementation has not been complete or prompt, that Mr. H.'s observations and concerns were well founded, and that he has little ability to control the enforcement of measures which might minimize the particular risks to him," wrote Shelley.

"There has been little testing and there is no random testing regime in place in relation to the hundreds or thousands of people who are either confined there or enter and leave it each day."

Shelley said between May 19 and May 31, 183 tests were conducted following revised testing for new inmates who must first provide consent.

Hart-Dowhun said it's difficult for prisoners to be able to make the choices to protect themselves with reduced access to showers and handwashing and unavoidable physical closeness.

"My fear is that people will die in there," Hart-Dowhun said in an interview Thursday. "And that will be what it takes for enough people to care to do something and by then families have lost their loved ones."

'This system works'

AHS and Alberta Justice and Solicitor General said robust prevention protocols are in place and they are in line with the approach being adopted across Canada.

Inmates are assessed upon admission, transfer and at least once a day, AHS said in an email. AHS added that new inmates are quarantined in a group, and anyone who shows symptoms or tests positive is isolated.

The health authority said staff wear appropriate personal protective equipment when assessing patients and self-isolate when showing symptoms. Other steps to prevent transmission include decreased group programs, enhanced cleaning procedures and physical distancing measures, AHS said.

"Dr. Deena Hinshaw has repeatedly stated this system works," said Dan Laville, spokesperson for the solicitor general. 

"The very small number of infected inmates also reflects the system is working, with many precautions and preventative actions put in place to protect the health of everyone in facilities."