Saskatoon Correctional Centre inmates say not enough being done to protect them against COVID-19

Inmates say they fear a potenial COVID-19 outbreak because of overcrowding and want the government to address their concerns.

Letter to province, feds wants answers on overcrowding and what contingency plans are if there is an outbreak

Inmates at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre have sent a letter to corrections officials stating their concerns regarding a potential COVID-19 outbreak. (CBC)

Inmates at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre (SCC) say they fear a potential COVID-19 outbreak because of overcrowding and want the government to address their concerns.

Cory Cardinal, who is currently serving time at SCC, sent a letter to the province and the federal government on behalf of the inmates.

Cardinal said there are almost 500 inmates in the SCC with six of the units being dorms where prisoners share cells and bathrooms.

"We're all in bunk beds so there's absolutely no chance of us social distancing at all here," Cardinal said.

The prison population is also compromised health-wise because of high HIV rates and other, pre-existing health conditions, he said.

Cardinal requested Corrections officials answer inmates' questions but that has not happened.

"What they were saying was that they didn't want to come on the unit and be picked apart by 30 inmates with multiple questions," Cardinal said.

"I think they should be more accountable with the inmates that they take care of, and I think they should come and answer some questions because there's a lot of stress going on here."

'Recipe for disaster'

Sherri Maier is a prisoner advocate who runs Beyond Prison Walls Canada and helped draft Cardinal's letter to the government.

She said having inmates sharing cells and bathrooms is a recipe for disaster.

"It's a confined space. So, like, if one person gets it, it's going to be super easy for the whole unit to get it because they're so close," she said.

In a statement to CBC the province says it is following all health protocols at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Cardinal said the inmates mental health is deteriorating because they are not allowed visitors, there are no sweat lodges or other programming being offered at the moment and access to health-care is being restricted.

In a written response to CBC News, the province's Minister of Corrections and Policing said the facility is following COVID-19 precautions.

"All new admissions to provincial correctional facilities are being quarantined for 14 days on admission units as a precautionary measure before being placed with the rest of the population in the facility," the statement said.

"Offenders who display symptoms are tested and required to isolate until the results come back."

Offenders have the opportunity to "access programming, communicate with friends and family, and exercise," the letter said, and correctional centres have resumed in-person services from Elders and chaplains, as well as in-person visits from defense counsel and other professionals. 

To date no offenders have tested positive for COVID-19 in Saskatchewan's correctional facilities.

Questions and uncertainty 

The province said offenders do have access to health and mental health services, as they did before the pandemic. 

There are almost 500 inmates at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

But Cardinal disputes that health services is readily available to inmates.

"There's a psychologist or psychiatrist, but it takes one, two, three months for you actually to see a psychiatrist," Cardinal said. "That was even before the pandemic, so you can imagine what the health care system is like now."

He also said there is no sweat lodge or concrete timeline as to when that could be back.

"It's creating a lot of questions, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of stress. And they're doing very little for stress relief."

Maier says with the current protocols in place the government is not prepared for a potential outbreak within the correctional system.

"The only thing is guards are wearing masks," she said. "Other than just the mask thing, that's all that's been done. There's really nothing."

Cardinal wants more transparency and accountability from management.

"[They] aren't coming to speak with the inmates and explain what their contingency plans are for dealing with a probable health crisis."

With files from Theresa Kliem