Nfld. & Labrador

HMP officials knew about COVID-19 exposure last week, NAPE president says

The president of the union for correctional officers says the government's explanation for testing at Her Majesty's Penitentiary does not line up with facts.

Union questions why some members were not tested, and why it didn't happen sooner

Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's has thus far escaped the COVID-19 outbreak happening around the city. However, testing began Thursday after a guard was identified as a close contact of a confirmed case. (CBC)

The president of the union for correctional officers in Newfoundland and Labrador says the government's explanation for COVID-19 testing at the province's largest jail on Thursday does not line up with facts.

Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, told CBC News that the superintendent of prisons, Daniel Chafe, was told last weekend about two guards being in close contact with a positive case.

The Department of Justice and Public Safety, meanwhile, says officials became aware of one guard being a close contact to a positive case on Wednesday night. Testing was launched Thursday morning at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's.

Nobody seems sure if the case that prompted the testing is the same case Earle said was reported to prison officials last week.

"[Frontline officers] relayed this information themselves to the leadership and it wasn't acted on," Earle said. "This is coming from officers in that facility that are saying they clearly were aware of the situation of a close contact back last weekend."

CBC News requested an interview with Chafe to respond to the allegations, and can confirm a close contact of two guards tested positive early last week. It is unclear, however, when those two guards were last at work.

Late Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Justice Department ignored the request for an interview and instead emailed a statement, reiterating that it was Wednesday evening when officials become aware of the close contact to a positive case. 

"Public Health does not test contacts of contacts. They test contacts of confirmed, presumptive, or suspect cases," reads part of the statement.

As of Friday's afternoon's update, there are 417 active cases in the province, most of the them in the Eastern Health region.

The latest outbreak, fuelled by the B117 variant of the virus, gained traction earlier this month and landed the province in lockdown on Feb. 12. 

Guards blocked from tests, NAPE says

Earle also says there's also conflicting information about who is being tested.

A statement from the Department of Justice and Public Safety on Thursday said, "The inmate and staff population at Her Majesty's Penitentiary are being tested for COVID-19."

Sources told CBC News some guards were being refused when they asked for tests. Earle confirmed this, saying some correctional officers were shocked to find out they were not eligible for testing. He said it was extended to all inmates, but only select staff and the reasons are not clear.

Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees president Jerry Earle reacted critically Thursday to a proposal by PC Leader Ches Crosbie to retool the process by which health spending is carried out. (Garrett Barrett/CBC)

Further complicating matters, NAPE was told some inmates refused to get tested.

"This has been a situation we have been infuriated with since yesterday afternoon," Earle said. "A significant number of our correctional officers were not provided with the opportunity for testing. There was a percentage that was tested yesterday, but I'm hearing that a very low number have been tested at this point in time."

Earle said there's a "major communication breakdown" between Justice and Public Safety and upper management at the penitentiary.

He said updates about testing have been done through email, which staff would not have access to when they are off shift.

About 20 guards were among the thousands in isolation in the metro St. John's region this month. The department says most are nearing the end of their quarantine period and will be returning to work.

Inmates say they don't have tools to fight COVID-19

Inmates at Her Majesty's Penitentiary are also banding together to express concern about the availability of personal protective equipment and disinfectant products now that the city is a COVID-19 hot zone.

Travis Pottle spends his entire day confined to a range of cells that house several other men with mental illnesses.

He spoke with CBC News to raise their collective concerns, saying the raging pandemic outside the jail is ratcheting up the tension on the inside, and causing severe anxiety for inmates in isolation.

"It takes a toll on us and it's stressing us out," Pottle said. "When it comes to our mental health, we have nobody we can even talk to. Half the people don't have a loved one they can get on the phone and express their self to or nothing. We can't see anybody. We have to vent to ourselves."

Inmates want cleaning supplies

Pottle spoke with CBC News on Wednesday, before testing was announced. 

He said inmates were worried each time a guard came in their cells, and were concerned they weren't being given cleaning supplies to sanitize their cells. 

"They don't give us bleach or Pine-Sol or any of the real proper things for cleaning," he said. "They don't even give us Lysol wipes anymore."

He also took issue with the penitentiary's mask policy, which requires inmates to wear masks only when leaving the building. He said inmates are sometimes given masks on the rare occasion they go off their cell blocks to the medical wing or to do a virtual visit.

Inmates are largely confined to their cells throughout the day, saying the isolation and lack of social interaction is reaching a breaking point. (CBC)

The Department of Justice and Public Safety disagreed with Pottle's assessment, with a spokesperson saying all inmates are given adequate cleaning supplies and more are available upon request, including disinfectant wipes.

The spokesperson said inmates are confined to their ranges, and treated like cohorts or bubbles. They can interact with each other as long as they stay within their range.

The province has been a leader Canada-wide in temporary releases granted to inmates due to the pandemic. According to data from Statistics Canada, the province released more than a third of its inmates, going from 310 last February to 205 in August.

The releases were intended to reduce crowding in correctional institutions, and thus reduce the potential for spreading the virus.

Lack of programs weighing on inmates

Pottle said he's worried inmates won't self-report if they are feeling sick, since it could result in further isolation for themselves and others at a time when they're already cut off from almost all social interaction.

"There is no programs. No counselling. No mental health [professional] to go in and talk to. There's no nothing. There's nothing in the jail," he said. "If one of us feels sick or something and we went up to tell them, they're going to throw us down in the basement or lock down the range."

The Canadian correctional system has seen more than 5,000 cases of COVID-19, with the vast majority being inmates. There have been four known fatalities.

Newfoundland and Labrador has not had any reported cases in correctional facilities.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Ryan Cooke works for CBC out of its bureau in St. John's.

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