Sask. Pen inmate who died from COVID-19 remembered for his laugh and being protective of family

Eugene Francis' sister, Konzter Gregorie, says she hopes no other family members have to go through the heartache that she and her family suffered after her brother died from COVID-19 related complications while he was an inmate at the Saskatchewan Penitentary in Prince Albert.

Family members have identifed Eugene Francis, 53

Eugene Francis, 53, died as a result of COVID-19 related complications. Francis was an inmate at the Saskatchewan Penitentary. (Supplied by Konzter Gregorie)

The first person to die as a result of COVID-19 in the Saskatchewan Penitentiary has been identified by family as 53-year-old Eugene Francis. 

His younger sister, Konzter Gregorie, confirmed his identity to CBC via email after he was reported to have died in an outside hospital from COVID-19-related complications on Jan. 8.

Gregorie said her brother was originally from Lac La Biche, Alta., but had lived in Edmonton since the '90s. People who knew him, posting on Facebook after his death, used his nickname, Magoo. 

Laugh, love for family won't be forgotten 

Gregorie said in a text message his memory will live on.

"I'll never forget the sound of his laugh," she said. "And he was always very protective about the ones he loved."

She said his health deteriorated quickly. 

"He called and said he had COVID-19 and next thing he was gone, passed away," she said via text, noting it all happened in a "couple of days." 

Francis' COVID-19 death is the first recorded at the federal facility in Prince Albert and the fourth of an inmate who contracted the virus in a federal prison.

Gregorie said the death has been "very emotional" for her and her family, as they hate to think of their brother passing away, "basically alone, with no family."

"I pray that no body else has to go through this kind of heartache," she said.

Numbers released earlier this week indicate progress is being made on the Saskatchewan Penitentiary outbreak, as active cases continue to fall. As of Jan. 12, Correctional Service Canada data indicates 213 of the 244 cases recorded in the facility — roughly 87 per cent — have recovered, with only 31 listed as active.

Saskatchewan is still leading the country when it comes to active COVID-19 cases in federal prisons, followed by Manitoba with 24 cases and Alberta with seven active cases.

The Prince Albert outbreak has been extremely difficult for the families of those inside. They say supports and resources are lacking.

"I hate it. I hate that my husband's there," said Amber Slippery.

She said her husband, Conrad Slippery, contracted COVID-19 in the prison and that the last few weeks have been extremely difficult. Conrad suffered from extreme fatigue as a result of the virus and could hardly leave his cell, she said.

She said that while he's sounding better now, the outbreak has been a struggle for her and their two kids.

"They're really scared for him," she said.

Amber, who works in the health-care sector, said her husband is at high risk due to diabetes. She said he's told her he's had trouble accessing cleaning supplies.

Amber Slippery (left) and her husband, Conrad, alongside their two children Elijah and Nevaya. (Supplied by Amber Slippery)

Her worries peaked this weekend when Francis's death was reported.

"I just never want my husband to die in there too," she said.

Amber said her son is also taking the outbreak hard, as the youngster regularly talks to his dad on the phone, a comfort that's become more scarce with outbreak procedures in place.

"[My son] cries quite a bit, because he's used to his dad phoning all the time," she said.

"The fact that his dad can't call home all the time, and when he can get to call, they're either sleeping or they're at school, so he's really not talking to his kids now and that's affecting them big time."

Desperation taking form

Bronson Gordon, an inmate at the facility, claims some are getting so desperate to see outbreak procedures ended they are trying to get others infected using what he called a "virus bomb."

Bronson Gordon is currently serving time at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert. In a recent phone call shared with CBC, he detailed how conditions at the federal facility are quickly worsening for inmates. (Supplied by Sherri Maier)

He said a virus bomb is when an inmate who has tested positive for COVID-19 will cough and sneeze on a piece of property, like a magazine or an article of clothing, and then pass it along to someone else on the range in hope of exposing others.

Bronson, who claims he was targeted by a "virus bomb," said the practice started after a guard inside the facility told inmates the only way they'll be able to lift the outbreak procedures is if active cases fall to zero.

Bronson said many of those inside are in vulnerable, fragile states as a result of the lock down and are desperate for it to end.

"You've got a lot of people who are sitting in here with extreme f--king mental health issues due to this f--cking lockdown," he said.

No other sources with knowledge of life in the facility that CBC has spoken to have said they have heard of virus bombs.

CSC investigating remarks

CBC Saskatchewan requested an interview with a representative from the Saskatchewan Penitentiary about COVID-19 handling at the facility, including allegations of "virus bombs," but Correctional Services Canada (CSC) provided a written statement instead.

The statement said CSC takes the allegations outlined by Gordon seriously and will be looking into it.

"With regard to remarks to inappropriate staff comments, CSC employees are expected to act according to the highest legal and ethical standards, and are subject to the rules of professional conduct and code of discipline," CSC said.

"CSC does not tolerate any breach of its policies and all allegations are thoroughly investigated regardless of the source."

The statement said the safety of its employees, offenders and the public remains CSC's "top priority."

It also said that while the facility has modified routines, it is not locked down, as lock-down only happens when there is "a clear and substantial danger to safety and security of an institution, staff members, inmates, or to the public."

"Given the close living environment, positive inmates and close contacts are medically isolating in their cells. During the isolation period, inmates have access to health care staff as well as institutional staff," the statement said.

"Staff and Public Health will determine when it is safe to adjust Saskatchewan Penitentiary's modified routine and allow inmates to have access to standard routines and services again."

COVID adds pressure to already-tense environment

Pierre Hawkins, public legal counsel for the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, which advocates for prisoner rights in Canada, said isolation is mentally taxing on inmates to begin with and those stresses are magnified during a global pandemic.

"There's no doubt that COVID-19 in the correctional context increases tension among inmates, between inmates and corrections officers and in the facility generally," he said.

"We have a population here that disproportionately suffers, not only from mental health issues, but also from a physical vulnerability to complications from the virus.

"So you can understand why, that while on lock down with very few things to do, that people just sort of sit and worry and tensions, understandably, build a little bit."

Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert currently has more known COVID-19-positive inmates than any other federal prison in Canada. (Thomas Porter/The Canadian Press)

Hawkins said he's also heard reports of cleaning supplies being in short supply at the facility, but didn't have specifics.

He said it's unfortunate the outbreak at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary was able to spread so quickly, saying he thought the federal government would have been better prepared to handle the situation after dealing with outbreaks at other facilities earlier in the pandemic.

"We like to think that lessons would have been learned, that could have been applied at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, I'm not sure that has happened in this case."

Back inside the facility, Gordon said he was recently moved to the maximum security portion of the prison, where he says conditions are better.

He said he's not trying to cause trouble at the federal penitentiary, but wants to bring attention and hopefully positive change to a situation he feels is inhumane.

"All we talked about was: 'F--k, wouldn't it be good to like just go outside and just breathe in fresh air," he said. "All we get is this circulated air and we're stuck in our cell for 23 and a half hours a day."