Sask. Penitentiary inmates protest COVID-19 restrictions they say put them in cells 20 hours per day

Inmates at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary say they have been protesting COVID-19 measures that are keeping some in cells for 20 hours a day but do not enforce physical distancing or require guards to wear masks or gloves. 

Correctional Service Canada say routine changes are to prevent an outbreak

The province's only all-male federal prison in Prince Albert, Sask., where inmates say a lack of COVID-19 measures are putting them at risk. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Inmates at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary say they have been protesting COVID-19 measures that are keeping some in cells for 20 hours a day but do not enforce physical distancing among inmates or require guards to wear masks or gloves at all times. 

Prisoners and worried family members across Canada have started speaking out about their concerns as the number of COVID-19 cases behind bars exceeds 175. 

The first COVID-19 death of an inmate in Canada was announced by Correctional Service Canada last Thursday. The inmate had been at the Mission Institute in British Columbia, where 60 people had tested positive for the virus by April 19. 

No COVID-19 cases have been reported at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, which has capacity to hold more than 500 inmates.

But Anthony Slippery, who is in the medium security section of the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, said increased cell time and isolation to avoid the spread of COVID-19 is affecting mental health.

"It's pretty much like a death trap. We're pretty much sitting, waiting … it's a lot of what ifs, and a lot of this and that, a lot of worries. And then we got to go back in our cells and worry about this stuff," he said. 

Slippery has been in the Saskatchewan Penitentiary since 2012 for two counts of assault causing bodily harm. 

Slippery said it can take days to access a counsellor and inmates can be reluctant to put in a request because leaving the unit can raise suspicions that person is being a "rat" — sharing information with authority figures.   

In the immediate term obviously the bigger concern is that we don't have an outbreak.- Shawn Fraser, John Howard Society

He and two other inmates at the facility told CBC that concerns about the virus entering the prison are causing tension between inmates and guards, who the inmates believe should be required to wear masks at all times. 

Guards do not have to wear masks unless they are required to get closer than two metres away from inmates. 

"They're putting us at risk ... because they're the ones going out into society and we're not in a public place," said Slippery.

"There's a lot of guys worried here, you know, [about] catching it, because once it comes into the institution here it's just going to go like wildfire."

'Peaceful protests' 

Slippery said inmates who do not have jobs, or whose jobs are on hold, are being kept in their cells for 20 hours per day. He said the same inmates would usually spend more than 12 hours out of their cells during the day. 

Slippery and others said inmates have held "peaceful" protests about spending more time in their cells. He said groups of inmates have refused to "lock up" and made efforts to disrupt guard's attempts to count inmates. 

Correctional Service Canada said it has implemented a modified daily routine to reduce the risk of an outbreak at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary.

"It is not uncommon to have inmates or groups of inmates participate in peaceful protests where they do not agree with proposed changes to their routine," it said. 

"But we are certainly not aware of any mass/aggressive activity in all of these instances, discussions occur as a means to resolve and determine next steps."

CSC said the modified routine for COVID-19 was developed in conjunction with inmate representatives. 

"It allows inmates access to a number of activities including indoor movement, access to fresh air, access to telephones, showers, meals and laundry facilities."

"The schedule, which has been in place for a number of weeks, has been communicated widely with the offender population and respects a number of guiding principles including elimination of large group activities, promotion of physical distancing and enhanced cleaning protocols."

Inmates say guards should have to wear masks the whole time they are at work, not just when they are within two metres of an inmate. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

It said ongoing "solution-focused" meetings are held between management and inmate representatives to provide updates and make adjustments where possible. 

"The modified routine provides inmates the opportunity to be out of their cells for a minimum of four hours per day and in some cases up to eight hours a day with a minimum of one hour access to fresh air outdoors," it said in a statement. 

"Some offenders continue to attend work in critical institutional employment areas such as food services and cleaning."

Twenty hours a day is the maximum amount of time an inmate is allowed to be in their cell if they are in solitary confinement, now known as Structured Intervention Units.

Slippery said inmates can still play cards and be close to each other when they are outside of their cells. 

Preventing an outbreak is the priority: Inmate advocate

Shawn Fraser is the CEO of inmate advocacy group, the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan.

He said that although it is difficult for inmates to spend more time in their cells, it is warranted due to the seriousness of the risk of an outbreak. 

"It's unfortunate that prisoners have to stay in their cells for an extended period of time, that has the potential to have long-term effects," said Fraser. 

"But in the immediate term obviously the bigger concern is that we don't have an outbreak in a Saskatchewan institution, which we're ripe for right now. 

"We hope it doesn't happen but it would not be shocking to me at all if we did hear in the coming days that there was an outbreak in one of the institutions." 

Fraser thinks prisons should be taking all measures at their disposal to try to protect inmates from the virus. He said that includes having staff wear masks. 

"Prisons across this country represent one of the last institutions where we have huge groups of people gathering and the fact is that's a danger, not only to the people that are serving time but the people that are working in those prisons and actually for all of us," said Fraser.   

"We've been lucky so far, especially in Saskatchewan, that we haven't seen a big spike in cases but where those spikes in cases will come from most likely will be in our prison system."

Inmates say guards should wear masks

Bronson Gordon, who is in the maximum security section of the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, said inmates feel guards should carry more responsibility for ensuring there is no outbreak at the facility. 

"They're taking all of our privileges away though," said Gordon. 

"That's why we're getting upset, because why are you punishing us? Why are you taking away all of our privileges? Why are you giving us only four and a half hours out of our cell when you guys can't even wear a mask and gloves and you guys aren't using hand sanitizers?"'

CSC said it has provided guidance to staff on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

"Also, for anyone working at one of our sites, CSC has issued guidance for working with an offender with either symptoms of, or who is diagnosed with, COVID-19," it said in a statement.

"When they are providing care and will be within two (2) metres for an inmate, staff will put on gloves, a surgical/procedural mask, a face shield or eye goggles and a gown."

Of the three inmates CBC spoke to at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, all said they were not aware of any additional mental health supports being introduced for inmates who are now spending more time in their cells.

Video visits have been introduced after in-person visits were cancelled in mid-March. 

"There's a lot of guys in there that have psychological or mental health issues," said Gordon, who is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder over the 2015 death of Reno Lee. He has appealed his conviction.

Some inmates at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary are spending more time in their cells due to COVID-19 measures introduced by CSC. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

"Some of them are suffering from not seeing their family. Some of them are just having anxiety over the pandemic and not and seeing guards, you know, wear their protective gear and stuff."

"You got a lot of people that are just scared."

Worry about what's happening inside the institution has seeped into the outside world, as family members absorb the concerns of their loved ones.

Anthony Slippery's wife, Nicolle, said she wasn't able to contact her husband for three days last week because the phones in his unit were not working.

"So that kind of adds to the worry, like my worry, because OK he knows what's going on and he knows what the problem is but I don't," she said.

"I'm on this end and I'm like 'OK, well I know that a couple days ago the unit beside him was quarantined, you know. Is there something, someone [who has COVD-19]? Is it my husband? All of those things have gone through my mind over the last few days.

"Just to find out that it was something as small and as silly as just the phones not working." 

Friends and family of inmates at provincial correctional centres are also deeply worried about the potential for an outbreak in those facilities. 

'Every day I pray': Mom of Regina inmate

Christine Morrissette's son Michael (Junior) Morrissette is on remand at the Regina Correctional Centre. 

"Every day I pray that my son does not become exposed to COVID-19," said Morrissette. 

"As a mother I wait for his phone call to make sure he's safe and healthy another day. And it's not easy for me to do that."

Her son has been on remand since he was arrested on a second-degree murder charge in connection with the death of David Justin Lloyd Anderson in Regina on March 5. 

"I'm very leery about it and I'm very concerned about my son. He's only 21 years old and he does have health conditions so him being exposed to that could really put him in a bad situation," she said.

"And I don't know if they even contact the person if he's been exposed to it. 

"Even though he is gone in for a crime he's a person too and everybody deserves a chance to be safe and healthy during this pandemic."

New admissions quarantined

Ministry of Justice spokesperson Noel Busse said there have not been any changes to the amount of time offenders are being kept in their cells at provincial facilities. 

"However, we have restricted movement and placement of offenders in our facilities as a precautionary measure to reduce any potential spread of COVID-19," he said in a written response to questions.

"For example, all new admissions to provincial correctional facilities are quarantined for 14 days as a precautionary measure before being placed with the rest of the population in the facility."

Staff at provincial correctional facilities are not required to wear masks at all times. 

"There may be certain instances where a staff member is required to use a mask or some other form of PPE while they are conducting specific duties," said Busse.