Lawyer questions province's audit of pandemic protocols at Edmonton Remand Centre
'As this was an internal review, it may not have been on the radar of those not directly involved in it': AHS
The Alberta government says an internal audit of COVID-19 safety protocols was conducted at the Edmonton Remand Centre (ERC) in April but an Edmonton lawyer who has called for random audits says the evidence shows otherwise.
"This is false and cannot possibly be true," said Tom Engel, president of the Canadian Prison Law Association (CPLA), on Monday, citing evidence that included court-filed affidavits and testimony during a bail hearing in June from Ian Lalonde, the director of programs at the ERC.
Engel said the evidence established that neither Alberta Health Services nor the ERC had an audit program and evidence showed there was serious non-compliance of pandemic protocols including the inability to wear masks and physically distance.
In an email more than two months earlier, Engel had already warned the Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Alberta Justice and Solicitor General Doug Schweitzer about those concerns as he began hearing anecdotal accounts of non-compliance at the jail and asked them to begin an audit program.
Those concerns were later echoed in a letter sent to Hinshaw and Schweitzer from the Alberta Prison Justice Society (APJS) on July 15. Both groups said there was no evidence audits were being conducted the results of audits should be posted publicly.
In response to a question from CBC on Aug. 4, Hinshaw said she had not had an opportunity to consider whether audits should be implemented.
On Aug. 7, Alberta Justice said AHS staff regularly conduct site visits to inspect all provincial correctional facilities to ensure appropriate COVID-19 protocols are adhered to.
When asked for more details, the government said staff continuously monitor to ensure guidelines are followed and procedures are embedded in day-to-day operations.
At the outset, during the week of April 20, the centre director and health care manager at each site conducted an internal audit and walked through the centre to ensure all COVID-19 safety elements were being adhered to, the province said.
As this was an internal review, it may not have been on the radar of those not directly involved in it.- James Wood, AHS
"The April internal audit was an Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Corrections-led internal review with a checklist," wrote James Wood, director of issues management and media relations with AHS, in an email on Aug. 14.
"This internal review was conducted at all provincial adult and youth centres in April as the COVID-19 guidelines and processes had been newly introduced. Any improvements needed were identified at the time and corrective action taken. As this was an internal review, it may not have been on the radar of those not directly involved in it."
The province did not elaborate on the quantity or type of violations found, what remedial action was taken or say whether records are maintained.
Wood said staff and inmates are encouraged to raise any concerns.
"If concerns are raised they are reviewed and corrective action taken as needed," Wood said.
But Engel questioned how an April audit would not be on Lalonde's radar.
After Lalonde's testimony in May, a Court of Queen's Bench justice granted a bail review to Engel's client in part due to evidence the guidelines were not being implemented.
Engel said affidavits, CCTV footage and evidence provided through disclosure by the Crown — who worked with AHS and ERC to get it — showed the jail was not following COVID-19 protocols and no information or records indicated there were any kind of inspections.
"[Lalonde] was assigned a task to make sure that the COVID-19 guide was being implemented. And I asked him specifically whether there were any audits, any inspections by AHS or by ERC staff and he said there were none, and that if there were he would know about," Engel said. "So somebody is lying here."
Investigations lack integrity and inmates learn it's futile to complain, Engel added.
On Aug. 20, a positive COVID-19 case was identified at the ERC involving a staff member although it's believed the employee was infected in the community.
Three inmates have tested positive for the virus since March.
More space for inmates
In an effort to create more space, some ERC inmates are being transferred to the Edmonton Young Offender Centre (EYOC), the province said.
Since May 22, two empty units at the EYOC have been used to house some adult inmates.
"This is a temporary measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among prison populations – something that some inmate advocates have been calling for," a JSG spokesperson wrote in an email.
"The EYOC has multiple areas that can be completely isolated from each other, so the adults and youth are completely separated, so this temporary measure does not negatively impact any of the youth that are housed in their own separate and secure area of the centre."
The province dismissed calls to depopulate jails to allow remaining inmates to better physically distance.
"We understand that criminal defence lawyers will exercise every avenue possible for their clients, but we do not agree with the call to "depopulate" Alberta's correctional facilities," said an email from Alberta Justice.
The government said measures to prevent the spread of the virus also include quarantining new admissions in groups for up to two weeks and keeping inmates single bunked where possible.
Officials said it's not possible to say how many inmates are single bunked in comparison to the general population, which varies on a daily basis.
"These prudent actions are one of the reasons why there have only been eleven positive inmate cases for COVID-19 in Alberta's provincial correctional facilities (between March 15 and Aug. 13), all having been contracted in the community and no spread within the facilities," the province wrote.