Prisoner justice society calls for plan to protect Alberta inmates from COVID-19 outbreaks

Prison justice advocates are calling for swift, proactive steps to protect people in Alberta correctional and remand centres, and reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Dozens of COVID-19 cases linked to outbreaks at correctional facilities

There are currently 44 inmates and two staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Edmonton Remand Centre, Alberta Health Services says. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Prison justice advocates are calling for swift, proactive steps to protect people in Alberta correctional centres and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The Alberta Prison Justice Society (APJS) sent an open letter addressed to the government, remand centres Crown prosecutors, police and health authorities on Monday raising concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks in Alberta's correctional institutions.

Amanda Hart-Dowhun, APJS president, wrote in the letter that her organization wants to ensure there's a plan to protect inmates and staff from future outbreaks.

Hart-Dowhun said inmates and correctional staff are feeling stressed.

"From the perspective of many of the inmates, they're extremely stressed, because a lot of them are surrounded by people who have COVID-19 and there are no reasonable steps they can take to keep themselves safe," Hart-Dowhun said.

"Many of them have described that they're sitting there, they've got 10 or 15 cases of COVID on their unit and they're just waiting for it to get to them, and hoping they don't die when they get it."

According to Alberta Health Services on Monday, there are 71 active cases of COVID-19 connected to an outbreak in the Calgary Remand Centre, as well as 257 people who have recovered. Another 36 inmates were released to the community for a public health follow up, and seven inmates at the centre tested positive in cases unrelated to the outbreak. There are also 56 correctional and AHS staff members, and one contractor, at the Calgary Remand Centre who have tested positive.

Around the rest of the province, 44 inmates and two staff members at the Edmonton Remand Centre have tested positive for COVID-19 in connection to a facility outbreak, AHS said. Fifteen inmates and one staff member at the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre and one inmate at the Peace River Correctional Centre have also tested positive.

Hart-Dowhun she's worried about the multiple outbreaks in Alberta's correctional institutions and the effect it has had on both inmates and staff, especially after a Fort Saskatchewan correctional officer recently died of COVID-19.

Once a facility has a few cases, it can be difficult to stop the spread, Hart-Dowhun said. Pressure on correctional institutions will likely increase as community spread continues to rise, she added.

"Like a snowball rolling down the hill, it's harder and harder to stop every moment that we let it continue to roll," Hart-Dowhun said. 

"There's the potential for long-term disability and even death from COVID-19, so there's a lot on the line for the inmates within institutions [and] for the guards there. There can be critical and irreversible consequences. So we want to get ahead of that to stop that before it happens."

The Alberta Prison Justice Society's letter calls for correctional institutions and health authorities to ensure steps are being taken to address inmates' concerns and provide medical care and hygienic living conditions.

COVID-19 protocols in place since March

Robust infection prevention protocols have been used since March under the direction of AHS to counter COVID-19 spread in Alberta's correctional and remand facilities, said Blaise Boehmer, spokesperson for Alberta's Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General.

"There is a strong partnership with AHS, as they provide onsite inmate health care services delivery, including the implementation of COVID-19 protocols," Boehmer said via email on Monday. 

AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said protocols have included additional inmate admission screening and testing, 14-day quarantines for new arrivals and medical isolation for those testing positive. PPE is used, and inmates are isolated in cohorts to restrict transmission between groups.

"Nurses and various AHS staff are assigned throughout our facilities to complete the at minimum, once-daily wellness checks. PPE and hand hygiene is in place for all staff moving throughout the facility and between units/cohorts," Williamson said via email on Monday.

Williamson said most visits to inmates have been suspended, and those that are required are done in rooms with glass barriers to prevent physical contact. He added that AHS and corrections staff are on site every day to ensure these guidelines are followed, and staff are screened before every shift.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said on Monday that there's a high risk of spread in any congregate setting including correctional facilities. She said she met last week with representatives from the justice ministry to discuss how to support their work to prevent COVID-19 spread.

Hinshaw said health protocols in correctional facilities have been effective, but that it's difficult to prevent all introductions of the virus into congregate settings.

"When an introduction of the virus happens without identification, unfortunately it can spread extremely quickly and that's very challenging," Hinshaw said.