Hamilton

Employee at Barton jail has tested positive for COVID-19

Inmates at the Barton jail are one of the "incredibly vulnerable" populations identified by officials as the city continues to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Inmates are among the 'incredibly vulnerable' populations identified by health officials

Public health officials say an employee at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre has tested positive for COVID-19. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

A support staff member who works with inmates at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC) has tested positive for COVID-19.

"Our thoughts are with the staff member and their family during this time," wrote Brent Ross, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, in a statement to CBC News.

"Upon receiving this information, the ministry undertook a deep clean of the area that the individual was working in. We have also notified staff of the confirmed COVID-19 positive result."

The employee is part of the support staff who "deal with inmates" at the Barton Street Jail, according to Geoff Vanderdeen, president of OSPEU Local 248, which represents 200 correctional officers and staff members there.

He only found out about the positive test Thursday night.

"It was a shock. With pandemic going on, once it reaches into your building you have a fair amount of concern."

Inmates a vulnerable group

Dr. Bart Harvey, Hamilton's associate medical officer of health, said local officials also only became aware a worker at the jail had tested positive for the new coronavirus in the last 48 hours or so.

The employee, who does not live in Hamilton, is in self-isolation and the health unit is "working closely with the management and staff at the HWDC" to identify people who were in close contact with them and may be at an increased risk, said Harvey.

He noted inmates at the Barton jail are one of the "incredibly vulnerable" populations identified by officials as the city continues to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

The facility has been criticized for "extreme overcrowding" in the past, with the Ontario Human Rights Commission saying cells originally designed for one person regularly hold three.

"Some of those who are there may have medical conditions, mental health conditions, drug use conditions, chronic infections, disease and the way they're living is ... by definition a group enclosed setting so the opportunity for a virus like this that can spread like it does ... we recognize that," said Harvey.

There are 51 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Hamilton as of noon Friday, including one death.

"The sense from people inside is one of feeling vulnerable, afraid, and deeply uncertain of what's going to happen to them," reads a recent post on the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project Facebook page. 

Ross said the ministry has been in contact with public health to "ensure the continued health and wellbeing of our staff and those in our custody."

There are currently no cases of COVID-19 among the inmates at the HWDC, he added.

Staff at the jail have been directed to monitor their own health and report any symptoms.

Vanderdeen said some of workers at the jail are in self-isolation and others have called in sick meaning staffing, which is already stretched thin, is even more of a problem.

"Times are usually tough on a good day. Because of the COVID situation … it is getting very hard at time to fulfil what we're required to do at the facility."

Union has concerns about cleaning

Correctional facilities are inspected and cleaned daily and hand washing etiquette as well as directions around protecting others when it comes to coughing and sneezing have been passed along to staff and inmates," said Ross.

"The health and safety of our staff and those in our custody is a priority. As Ontario continues to take action to slow the spread of COVID-19, we are making further changes to protect our frontline corrections workers and our healthcare system from the burden an outbreak in our correctional system would cause."

But Vanderdeen said he's not happy with the level of sanitation at the jail. The promised thorough cleaning has yet to happen and and there are "clear improvements" that could still be made including better cleaning products and making sure staff have easier access to them.

"The ministry is behind the 8-ball. We are catching up, especially in our building," said the union president.

"We have a lack of PPE province-wide. We're all trying to catch up on how to intake clients that have tested positive or are showing signs of COVID-19."