More than 70 per cent of COVID-19 cases at Saskatchewan Penitentiary recovered

“We definitely feel we’ve made great progress with the pandemic and are pleased, because our recovered numbers continue to go up every week,” said Lee Anne Skene, the federal prison’s deputy warden.

One inmate at the federal prison has died as a result of COVID-19

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

Prison officials say the tides are turning for the better on the outbreak of COVID-19 at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, but advocates say the virus has taken a heavy toll on those inside.

"We definitely feel we've made great progress with the pandemic and are pleased, because our recovered numbers continue to go up every week," said Lee Anne Skene, the federal prison's deputy warden. 

As of Jan. 7, a total of 244 active cases had been recorded inside the federal penitentiary, with a majority — roughly 72 per cent — now listed as recovered. However, the outbreak has proven to be a fatal one. 

On Friday an inmate in his 50s died at an outside hospital as a result of COVID-19-related complications, and now support for inmates and staff dealing with the loss is being offered inside the penitentiary.

Saskatchewan still has the highest number of active cases — currently at 75 —  in federal prisons out of all of the provinces, followed by only Ontario with 30 cases and Alberta with 24. Overall, active cases in Saskatchewan make up more than half — 52 per cent — of the total 144 cases recorded in federal prisons across the country.

Some inmates getting more time out of cells

Some inmates at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary have had time outside of their cells reduced to only 30 minutes a day due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has created stress and hardship for both inmates and staff.

However, Skene says with more recoveries comes more and more progress in getting inmates out of their cells. 

"There are multiple ranges with recovered inmates who are receiving far more time out than that, because we're able to group people in smaller groups, as opposed to having them out individually," said Skene. 

While it appears progress is being made in getting the outbreak under control, prison advocate Sherri Maier says the federal government knew COVID-19 was a risk, and should have acted quicker to protect inmates inside. 

The founder of Beyond Prison Walls Canada says those inmates in isolation say their wellbeing is deteriorating with every day the outbreak continues, which she called a "disaster" that could have been prevented. 

"They always say: 'Go sit in your bathroom without your TV or phone and just see how long you can last,'" Maier said of inmates describing what they're going through.

"I've never done it, but I know I could not sit in my bathroom for more than a couple of hours."

In the early days of the outbreak, some inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19 were still being housed on the same ranges as inmates who were healthy, raising concern about potential transmission.

Maier says inmates are paying the price for poor planning.

Sherri Maier, an advocate for those inside Canada's prison system with the group Beyond Prison Walls Canada, feels the Correctional Service of Canada isn't doing enough to keep inmates safe during an outbreak at the facility that has affected 64 inmates and one staff member. (Supplied by Sherri Maier)

"What do you do sitting in your cell 23-and-a-half hours a day?" she asked. "You can only sleep so much and then it just starts to get depressing, you have no one to talk to, because in [Saskatchewan Penitentiary] they're all single bunks." 

Vaccinations begin in federal prisons

Earlier this week, the federal government announced older and medically vulnerable inmates at federal prisons would be getting vaccinated starting Jan. 8, with 600 inmates being vaccinated across the country. 

But Maier says such a slow, and selective rollout doesn't offer much comfort to those worried about contracting COVID-19 while they wait to be vaccinated.

Skene said she's not sure how many doses the Saskatchewan Penitentiary of COVID-19 vaccines the Saskatchewan Penitentiary has received, nor does she know how many inmates have been vaccinated, but it is coming.

"That is ahead of us," she said, noting she wants loved ones to know federal staff are doing their best to keep inmates safe. 

"All of the offenders at Sask. Pen continue to be taken care of. We continue to follow up with mental health and healthcare needs in the effort to reduce the pandemic and continue to keep everyone strong and healthy." 

The inmate who died at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary this week is the fourth federal inmate to die following a COVID-19 diagnosis.