COVID-19 outbreak infects 30 at Hamilton detention centre as cases spike in Ontario jails

A COVID-19 outbreak at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC) that's infected 30 inmates is fuelling calls for more prisoners to be released from provincial jails as the Omicron variant contributes to a spike in cases behind bars.

'It's a public health and a community safety disaster,' says criminologist Justin Piché

A demonstrator holds a sign calling for inmates at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre to be released during a protest in April 2020. A COVID-19 outbreak at the Barton Street jail has hit 30 inmate cases. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

A COVID-19 outbreak involving 30 inmates at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC) is fuelling calls for more prisoners to be released from Ontario jails as the Omicron variant contributes to a spike in cases behind bars.

As of Tuesday, 30 Barton jail inmates tested positive, according to statistics from the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

It's part of a surge in infections at correctional initiations across Canada that has seen 1,212 prisoners and staff contract the virus in December alone, said Justin Piché, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa who has been building a database of figures that includes government data.

"COVID is skyrocketing behind bars in Ontario," he said.

"It's a public health and a community safety disaster. We need urgent action to depopulate our jails to the extent that we can."

City data shows two staff members at the Arrell Youth Centre in Hamilton have also tested positive, and the ministry reports there is one inmate case of COVID-19 at the Niagara Detention Centre. According to Ontario Public Health data as of Wednesday, there were 17 outbreaks at correctional facilities in the province. 

Jails and prisons across Canada have counted 11,254 cases since the pandemic began, with roughly 10 per cent of that number being tallied last month, said Piché, an associate professor at the university.

He said the rise in cases mirrors what's happening in the broader community, with the Omicron variant leading to record case counts in Canada.

A man with a sign stands on the roof of a car outside the HWDC during an April 2020 protest. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

He urged the Ontario government and law enforcement officials to follow the same steps they took in the first wave of the pandemic. Back then, inmate populations were cut by about 30 per cent in a matter of weeks to limit spread in confined settings where prisoners often aren't able to keep distance from each other.

"Rather than applying those lessons throughout the pandemic, the [Premier Doug] Ford government, the courts, police have taken their foot off the gas right when we need them to accelerate with more transmissible variants," he said.

Ministry says it's taking precautions

A spokesperson for the ministry said each correctional facility has a pandemic plan in place and it will continue to work with public health to protect staff and inmates.

"Any inmate that tests positive for COVID-19 is placed on droplet and contact precautions and isolated from the rest of the inmate population while they receive appropriate medical care," wrote Andrew Morrison in an email.

He said inmates and staff undergo testing and the ministry has its own supply of COVID-19 vaccines, which are made available to eligible prisoners.

Morrison listed other steps provincial jails have taken, such as providing masks if required, increasing cleaning and housing new inmates away from the general population for 14 days.

Lockdowns lead to 'torturous conditions,' says prof 

But Piché said those measures aren't enough.

An outbreak can also lead to "torturous conditions of confinement" that see prisoners locked in their cell for all but half an hour a day, he said.

Similar concerns were raised by advocates with the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project, which first revealed the outbreak at HWDC in a post on Facebook.

The group criticized the ministry and jail officials for not communicating openly about the outbreak, and raised concerns from inmates about crowding and access to masks, sanitizer and soap.

"So far the jail has responded to outbreaks by increasing isolation, locking folks in cell for long periods," the post reads.

"With the cells so crowded and unsanitary though, without even space to take a few steps, this is in itself harmful to prisoners' health. Lockdowns are not public health measures, isolation is part of the disease."

Cutting the number of people in jails would keep those inside safer and help limit spread in the community too, by reducing the risk of exposure to staff who then leave the facility, visit stores and interact with others, said Piché.

"What happens behind bars does not stay behind there," he said, adding the situation should be alarming for everyone.

"If you don't care about prisoners … you should at least in your own self interest care about what's going on in terms of infections among staff because that has reverberations for their families and for our communities."


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