Thunder Bay

'Too little, too late': Many say Ontario's Solicitor General failed to prevent Thunder Bay jail outbreaks

With the overcrowding and the constant flow of people in and out of the correctional centre and the district jail in Thunder Bay, Ont., political and union leaders in the city have said the growing spread of COVID-19 at the two facilities comes as no surprise. But many have expressed frustration with the provincial government.

70 inmates and staff at Thunder Bay correctional facilities have tested positive for COVID-19 since Jan. 5

Seventy inmates and staff at the Thunder Bay District Jail (pictured) and the correctional centre have tested positive for COVID-19 since January 5. (Marc Doucette / CBC)

With the overcrowding and the constant flow of people in and out of the correctional centre and the district jail in Thunder Bay, Ont., political and union leaders in the city have said the growing spread of COVID-19 at the two facilities comes as no surprise.

As well, many have also expressed disappointment and frustration with the provincial government that more wasn't done to minimize the risk and reduce inmate populations before those first cases popped up.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox, who holds the justice portfolio within this political territorial organization, said, "it's a facility that's known to be overcrowded. There's too many inmates in a place that cannot hold them. So if one person gets COVID, it's an outbreak."

Union leaders at both the district jail and the correctional centre say they've been asking for the Ministry of the Solicitor General to reduce the inmate populations for months already.

"We've been begging them to spread our counts across the province for months, especially during this pandemic because we can't handle the pressure if [COVID] gets in," said Bill Hayes, union leader for correctional officers at the district jail.

"They've proven in the past to be a reactionary ministry, and they seem to be keeping it going," Hayes said of the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

"We should've had our count down around 100 going into Christmas. We knew this was coming. But again, they're dragging their feet, and then [COVID] finally gets in and we have no place to contain it."

Moves to reduce inmate population 'too little, too late'

Shawn Bradshaw, union representative for officers at the correctional centre, said it's felt like the Solicitor General has been working against them in some respects.

"It's a fight every time. As opposed to being proactive in getting guys tested regularly and getting staff tested regularly, we end up having to fight, argue and wait for corporate to make a call."

Shawn Bradshaw, the local union representative for officers at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, said the Ministry of the Solicitor General has been "dragging their feet" on addressing issues of overcrowding. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

While Solicitor General Sylvia Jones has not yet agreed to an interview with CBC, an emailed statement from a ministry spokesperson says they've acted in recent days to address concerns about inmate population, including the transfer of "a number of inmates" that are considered "low-risk for COVID-19" from the local jail to the Toronto South Detention Centre, where they will be isolated for 14 days.

The Toronto South Detention Centre experienced its own major COVID-19 outbreak in mid-December, with at least 94 inmates testing positive for the disease.

According to Hayes, the jail union leader, the courts have also expedited some bail hearings so people in remand can be released on bail "instead of just having them do dead time in the jail."

Transfers of inmates from the district jail to the correctional centre — something that usually happens to alleviate overcrowding at the jail — have also stopped since the jail was put in lockdown in early January.

But Bradshaw added the moves are "too little, too late."

University of Winnipeg professor and lead researcher on the Prison Pandemic Partnership, Kevin Walby, says an important way to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread in correctional facilities is by keeping people out of the facilities in the first place, and keeping the inmate population more manageable.

But statistics obtained by CBC News shows that the inmate population at the district jail has been above it's operational capacity of 124 inmates for 13 of the previous 20 weeks. And an emailed statement from a spokesperson with the Solicitor General said the jail has been operating at an average of 95 per cent of its capacity over the last six months.

Families of inmates left in the dark, says NDP MPP

NDP Member of Provincial Parliament for Thunder Bay–Atikokan, Judith Monteith-Farrell, says that's not good enough.

"I'm very disappointed that [the government] didn't plan better … we have a responsibility as a society, if we incarcerate people, we need to take care of them. And that jail, and I've toured it a couple of times, the district jail is a hellhole."

NDP MPP Judith Monteith-Farrell (Thunder Bay-Atikokan) said it was "heartbreaking" to know inmates that have tested positive for COVID-19 are being held in the Thunder Bay District Jail, which she calls "a hellhole." (Jeff Walters/CBC)

She added her voice to calls on Ontario to act faster to reduce the inmate population in Thunder Bay and to ensure better communication with families.

Monteith-Farrell says she's spoken to several families of inmates, who say they've been kept in the dark about the health of their loved ones.

"We found the same in long-term care, that there was a lack of communication and family members were left hanging, didn't know whether or not their family member had COVID. Were they okay? What was being done?"

Dr. Janet DeMille, the medical officer of health for the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, said both outbreaks are active and the public health investigation — including contact tracing and more rounds of testing for inmates and staff — is ongoing.

According to CBC's count, a total of 70 inmates and corrections staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since January 5.

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