Edmonton

Alberta-run jails have the highest COVID-19 rate in the country

Cumulative statistics provided by Alberta Justice show that 2,033 inmates and 419 staff have tested positive at provincially run jails and remand centres between March 15, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2021.

'Alberta has performed very, very badly in comparison to other jurisdictions'

Alberta has the highest COVID-19 positivity rate among inmates at provincial jails in Canada. More than a third of the cases have been recorded at the Edmonton Remand Centre. (CBC)

Seven per cent of all inmates who were inside Alberta provincially run correctional facilities since the start of the pandemic have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Figures released by Alberta Justice to CBC News reveal that 2,033 of 28,787 youth and adult inmates had COVID-19 between March 15, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021. During the same period, 419 correctional staff had the disease.

According to information compiled since the start of the pandemic by a University of Ottawa criminology professor as part of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, Alberta ranks highest per capita of all the provinces and territories for inmate positivity rates. 

"Alberta has performed very, very badly in comparison to other jurisdictions," said Justin Piché. "It is quite concerning to see just how many cases have happened in these congregate settings."

Piché said other provinces have been much more forthcoming with proactive disclosure. The numbers provided to him by CBC were the most comprehensive that have come from Alberta to date. They were higher than the numbers he posted online two weeks ago. 

"As far as tracking COVID-19 cases among imprisoned people and staff within Alberta provincial jails, it's been like trying to roam through a transparency desert," Piché said.

Criminal defence lawyer Amanda Hart-Dowhun said she was disappointed but not surprised by the cumulative COVID cases in Alberta jails and remand centres. 

"This is a significant human rights issue and it's impacting disproportionately people in poverty, Indigenous people and other vulnerable populations," Hart-Dowhun said. 

Defence lawyer Amanda Hart-Dowhun said she's disappointed but not surprised at the high number of COVID-positive cases in Alberta-run correctional facilities. (Janice Johnston/CBC News )

'I was just shocked'

According to the Alberta Justice numbers, the Edmonton Remand Centre (ERC) has been the hardest-hit provincial correctional facility by far with 861 inmates and 153 staff testing positive up until the end of last year.

Second on the list is the Calgary Remand Centre, with 489 positive inmate cases and 85 among staff. Peace River Correctional Centre reported 229 positive inmate cases and 23 among staff.

Criminal defence lawyer James Wegener predicts a jump in ERC cases based upon his experience at the facility while visiting two clients on Sunday. 

"My first client was brought in and he immediately informed me he had COVID-19," Wegener said.

The client showed him a letter from Alberta Health Services indicating he'd tested positive two days earlier. Wegener was surprised staff allowed an in-person meeting.

"Usually in all my past experiences, if someone has COVID-19, they're in isolation and ERC is refusing to let us meet in person," he said. 

Many inmates are confined to their cells during COVID-19 outbreaks for up to 23-hours a day. (CBC)

Wegener met with his client for an hour and a half.

"When I was done, they went to get the second inmate and within about two minutes they brought him in and immediately put him in the same room," the lawyer said. "They did no cleaning and I was just shocked."

The second inmate was not COVID-positive. Wegener insisted they get moved to another room. 

Due to outbreaks at ERC, inmates have remained locked down and unable to perform their regular cleaning duties, he said. 

"The showers aren't being cleaned right now and haven't been for a couple of weeks," Wegener said. "So you get let out for 15 minutes to have your shower. It's filthy. They're not cleaning it in between uses. 

"It's a terrible set of circumstances. When they're not doing stuff that's basic guidelines two years into a pandemic, that's sad." 

Outbreak reporting

Last week, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced a change in outbreak reporting, due to resourcing issues.

Hinshaw said her office would continue to investigate cases at high-risk congregate settings such as correctional facilities, but would no longer publicly report the outbreaks. 

However, in a news conference Tuesday, Hinshaw said AHS did have the capacity to report outbreaks in correctional facilities and shelters and would continue to report outbreaks in those settings. 

An Alberta Health Services spokesperson told CBC News there are currently outbreaks at three provincial run facilities. 

Sixty-seven inmates and four staff at the Calgary Remand Centre have tested positive. Twenty-one inmates and 12 staff have tested positive at the Edmonton Remand Centre. Fifteen inmates and two staff are currently COVID-positive at the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre.

Piché said he was shocked by the Alberta government's earlier decision to stop publicly reporting jail outbreaks. 

Justin Piché, associate professor in the department of criminology at the University of Ottawa, says he was shocked by the Alberta government decision to stop publicly reporting jail outbreaks. (Submitted by Justin Piché)

"When COVID-transmission happens behind bars, it doesn't stay there," Piché said.

He pointed to staff members coming and going every day, along with inmates being released into the community. 

"Is it ever a good idea to fly blind in the middle of a flight when you haven't reached your destination?"

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story excluded the number of positive cases at the Peace River Correctional Centre. Those details have since been added.
    Jan 18, 2022 10:33 AM MT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.

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