'In for some scary times' as 2 COVID-19 cases linked to Saskatoon Correctional Centre, union says

Two correctional officers at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre tested positive for COVID-19 and are self-isolating at home, according to the province, which says it is trying to find out who the staff members had contact with.

Advocates have been calling on provincial leaders to get population numbers down at jails during pandemic

On Thursday, Justice Minister Don Morgan said the province has no plans to release people in custody early despite growing concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 in the province's jails. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

Two officers at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre have tested positive for COVID-19and have been directed to self-isolate at home, provincial officials have confirmed.

It's not yet clear whether the cases are linked to travel or community transmission. 

Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union president Bob Bymoen urged transparency from the provincial government, saying Friday that confirmation the employees had been infected only came in the past few days. 

"We're in for some scary times," he said. "The staff are looking for more information and more help."

Bymoen added that given the close quarters and number of people at the facility, a lack of personal protective gear is a sore point with staff. Physical distancing and self-isolation in a jail are difficult. 

As of Friday afternoon, there were 104 reported cases of COVID-19 in the province, including three people who have recovered.

"Corrections is working with public health authorities to determine who [the officers] might have come into contact with within the correctional facility and what measures need to be taken as a result," an statement emailed by the provincial government Friday afternoon said.

Officers interacted with inmates

Noel Busse, executive director of the communications branch of the Ministry of Corrections and Policing, said during a Friday teleconference call he is unaware of just how many people have been tested, staff or otherwise.

"Honestly, if I tracked you down a number today, it is possible that it could change by tomorrow," Busse said.

Busse declined to say whether or not it's known if the cases are travel-related or not, citing the privacy of the officers.

Busse said specifics, such as the number of other staffers who were on duty at the same time as the officers, might not be readily available either due to the "fluid" nature of staffing levels in a correctional facility.

He did say that the two officers would interact with inmates at times during their typical duties and that the two officers did not work the same unit. There are currently 465 inmates at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre.

Staff are being provided with personal protective equipment like gloves, but Busse declined to comment on the supply, saying staff are "managing" with the current supply of PPE.

No inmates positive, so far

No inmates within provincial correctional facilities have tested positive for COVID-19 at this point, according to officials.

But advocates say it's just a matter of time, and have called on the province to lower the population in its jails by releasing non-violent offenders, people remanded to custody (those charged, but not convicted) and the elderly.

The province says it has no plans to do so.

Corrections is "exploring how to more effectively manage the sentenced offender population in our provincial correctional facilities in light of the COVID-19 outbreak," the provincial government says.

Justice Minister Don Morgan said Thursday overcrowding wasn't a concern, because jails are not operating at capacity. 

"It depends on what you define as capacity," said Deb Hopkins,a former Legal Aid lawyer.

"These jails were only ever designed to have single-cell occupancy … and now everyone's double-bunked and they've taken over the gyms."

She said people in the jails are fearful about the current situation, adding things can get bad quickly when tension rises. 

Hopkins said municipal and provincial leaders should take action now to co-ordinate a plan for release and support, so people who get out don't bounce back into the system.

"What we need here is a humanitarian response and a community response to this situation," she said. "Instead we're getting stonewalled." 

Legal Aid guidance 'appalling'

An email sent from the CEO of Saskatchewan's Legal Aid to staff on Monday, which was obtained by CBC News, suggested they reduce talk of early release amid the pandemic — the opposite of what advocates are calling for. 

Hopkins called the message appalling. 

"The CEO and that whole organism has to be seen as having peoples' backs," said Hopkins, who spent two decades working with Legal Aid Saskatoon. 

CEO Craig Goebel said in the email that Legal Aid had received calls "regarding the other 'contagion' sweeping through Correctional Institutions."

The "other contagion" he referred to was a notion that "COVID-19 is a kind of 'get out of jail card.'"

COVID-19's "potential imminence in jails," he wrote, "allows remanded clients the chance to demand to get out en masse or that they can have another bail hearing."

CBC obtained the message from both a lawyer and a staffer. Goebel declined an interview.

Deb Hopkins says the concerns of inmates should be taken seriously. (CBC)

Hopkins said the message implies the fear of inmates is not legitimate.  That's particularly concerning, she says, because many people don't have options for representation beyond Legal Aid.

Furthermore, most of the work related to inmate releases, like file reviews, bail plans and community support, would fall to Legal Aid. 

"There has to be confidence in the justice system — and it's being tested right now." 

Union blasts 'tone-deaf' memo 

Meara Conway, president for CUPE Local 1949 — the union which represents Legal Aid workers in the province — called the message tone-deaf and said it's offensive to staff and private lawyers. 

"Our staff is working hard on the ground to get as many people released as possible to limit risk and potentially save lives," Conway said in an emailed statement Friday morning, before it was confirmed the Saskatoon Correctional Centre officers had tested positive.

"One would expect any intervention from the leader of our organization to be supportive of these efforts."

She said the clients "are legitimately afraid of what will happen when — not if — COVID-19 hits in a space where overcrowding is the norm."