Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay jail union calls for provincial help as COVID-19 case numbers jump

The union representing staff at the Thunder Bay District Jail is calling for more support from the province as confirmed COVID-19 cases at the facility increase.

22 inmates, 16 staff positive for virus as of Monday

22 inmates and 16 staff at the Thunder Bay District Jail were positive for COVID-19 as of Monday. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

The union representing staff at the Thunder Bay District Jail is calling for more support from the province as confirmed COVID-19 cases at the facility increase.

Ten new cases of the virus were confirmed at the jail on Monday. Bill Hayes — president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 737, which represents jail staff — said as of Monday, 22 inmates and 16 staff members were positive for COVID-19.

Hayes says about 21 staff in total are off work to isolate, including those who have been identified as close contacts of staff members who have tested positive.

"Staff are getting very frustrated," he said. "This is affecting them, and affecting their families."

"People are nervous now," Hayes added. "People are having to isolate away from their families, because we just can't be sure. We know it's in here, and it's spreading quickly."

Hayes said more support from the province is needed. The province did transfer a number of inmates from the Thunder Bay jail to a southern Ontario facility in January in an effort to address overcrowding at the jail. Hayes has also said the ministry has previously sent staff to Thunder Bay to help with contact tracing.

"Support seems to be drying up now from the ministry," he said. "You expect them to send a few people down here to help out, but nobody's really showed up."

"We have an acting superintendent that's in charge of the [Thunder Bay Correctional Centre], the female unit, and the Thunder Bay jail, and he's getting pulled in three different directions," Hayes said. "Our regional office can't send anybody down here to help us. It's very frustrating."

Hayes said one issue is the time it takes to get test results. All new inmates — the jail is still required to accept new inmates, as it's the only remand centre in the Thunder Bay district — are tested for COVID-19 when they arrive, but results take 24 to 48 hours to come back, and inmates are placed in an isolation range while they wait for those results.

Release plans not mandatory

"We try and get them not to have contact with each other, try and preach the importance of PPE and not touching things, washing hands," Hayes said. "It's hard to stop them from trading desserts when lunch comes, or when supper comes."

"That makes it really hard to keep everything contained."

Hayes said inmates with COVID-19 can be released from custody if their sentence is finished before they've recovered.

In an emailed response to questions from CBC News, Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General said it has no legal grounds to either keep anyone in custody longer than a court orders, nor to monitor or oversee anyone who has been directed to self-isolate when released from custody.

Inmates are encouraged to work with corrections staff on a release plan, but that isn't mandatory, and an inmate's consent is required before their personal information can be shared with outside agencies.

The ministry said its staff are working with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit to help connect discharged inmates "with safe, stable and appropriate settings to self-isolate for an appropriate period before integrating into the community," regardless of the inmate's COVID-19 status.

In some cases, however, an inmate known to have COVID-19 is brought back to the jail within a day or two, Hayes said.

"That's happened already," he said. "Now, finally, they've incorporated testing every inmate right away as they come in through the back door, and then we find out that they have [COVID-19] maybe 24 to 48 hours later."

Isolation space needed

"This inmate is isolated, but he's in an isolation range," Hayes said. "We can't keep them entirely separate. He's in a separate cell, but sharing the same washroom facilities, shower facilities, as the other inmates in that isolation range."

The ministry said all inmates arriving at the jail are tested for COVID-19, provided they agree to the test, and any inmate who tests positive is isolated while they receive medical care; in fact, the ministry said, all new inmates are housed in an area separate from that of the general jail population for 14 days after being admitted.

Hayes said more isolation space is needed for inmates, somewhere they can go while they recover from COVID-19.

"It's frustrating to see look across the street from the Thunder Bay jail and see the LPH sitting there empty, and been empty for so many years, while we struggle with capacity issues," he said. "It's frustrating, again, to see the courthouse shut down and nobody moving, and knowing how many cells are in the courthouse, and we can't have access to them."

"We need the support from our regional directors and our deputy minister to come up here, and to start working locally," Hayes said. "Working with the courthouse, with the Ministry of the Attorney General, working with our local police department, getting these conversations going, getting some movement, ASAP."

"This is our community, he said. "We need to be pushing for this."

The ministry, in its response, didn't specify whether any consideration was being put into opening an off-site isolation space.

The ministry wouldn't disclose whether more transfers from the Thunder Bay jail to other facilities would be taking place, citing security reasons.