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Loved ones of EMDC inmates continue to worry amid COVID-19 outbreak

As a COVID-19 outbreak at the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre continues, those with loved ones imprisoned at the facility worry about safety.

As of Tuesday, there had been 55 cases of the coronavirus within the provincial jail since January

Known for crowded conditions, the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London, Ont., is the site of a COVID-19 outbreak that has spread rapidly among prisoners and staff. (Colin Butler/CBC)

As a COVID-19 outbreak at the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) continues, those with loved ones imprisoned at the facility worry about safety and isolation. 

Since Jan. 14, when the first case was detected at the provincial jail, there have been 55 people infected with COVID-19, including 26 inmates and 29 staff.

"It's not a good situation at all. They say the numbers are going down but there's still an outbreak, we don't know anything about the actual numbers, and the inmates are sitting ducks," said one mother of a 34-year-old inmate, who asked not to be identified because she feared the repercussions her son could face for her speaking out. 

"I have spoken to other parents that have had their sons or daughters in and out of there, and it's just very difficult."

According to the Middlesex London Health Unit (MLHU), there are were five active cases at the jail on Wednesday, including four inmates and one staff member.

There are currently 333 inmates at the jail, according to the Office of the Solicitor General. EMDC was originally built to house 150 inmates. 

"I do believe that they are doing everything that they can and we are working with them to try and find other things that can be done, if possible, to limit the spread," said Dr. Alex Summers, the MLHU's associate medical officer of health. 

Known for crowded conditions, the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London, Ont., is the site of a COVID-19 outbreak that has spread rapidly among prisoners and staff. (Colin Butler/CBC)

"Congregate environments like this are inherently riskier than some other settings. How do we make sure that people are separated from each other as much as possible? We know that certainly the steps are being taken very seriously."

The health unit has daily communication with EMDC staff, Summers said. 

Isolation even more difficult during COVID

By definition, inmates in jails face the mental health challenges that come along with isolation from family and friends. Visitors have been severely curtailed because of the outbreak. 

But COVID-19 has meant that those who enter the facility are isolated for two weeks, with the bare minimum of human contact, said criminal defence lawyer Cassandra Demelo. 

"Lawyers are also thinking about their own health and safety, so chances are, the clients are not getting anybody in terms of visitors, even if lawyers are allowed in," she said.

"All of us in the community are feeling fatigue from COVID, waiting for spring to come and that vaccines get here, and then you think about these accused people, many of them not convicted of a crime, stuck in a cell for hours and hours on end. It's got to be a very, very hard thing to to face day after day." 

'Very, very scary'

The mother CBC News spoke to has not been able to visit her son since mid-December. Inmates were given $20 phone cards, but calls cost $3 per minute, making access to the outside world very limited. 

"They look forward to those visits, and they can't get them," she said. "There's anxiety and frustration in general, and plus you have COVID, which is very, very scary...I worry about him and I worry about the other kids in there, too. There's a lot of people in there that can't take care of themselves." 

Summers said he is worried about the isolation encountered by those in congregate settings such as long-term care homes and detention centres, including EMDC. 

"I think this has been an exceptionally isolating time for everyone and when I think of inmates who are EMDC, I certainly am concerned. I think it speaks again about why driving down community transmission is important, not just for us who are in the community, but also those who are in congregate settings, including detention centres," Summers said.

"The more that we're able to keep transmission down here, the better we can keep transmission down in there and the better we can do in relieving some of those stressful situations that people may find themselves in."

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