Toronto

New rules in place for Ontario jail staff after guard reportedly tests positive for COVID-19

Ontario has issued new rules for jail staff after a guard reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 — but correctional officers tell CBC News that for days staff were expected to report for work even after returning for travel, provided they didn't have symptoms.

Correctional officers say for days, jail staff were expected to be on the job despite returning from travel

The Toronto South Detention Centre has capacity to house more than 1,500 inmates. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Ontario has issued new rules for jail staff after a guard reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 — but correctional officers say that for days, staff were expected to report for work even after returning for travel, provided they didn't have symptoms.

One source told CBC News the guard at the Toronto South Detention Centre had travelled to England before returning to work. The guard worked in the admitting and discharge area, the source said, meaning he would have been in contact with prisoners going to and from court appearances, as well as other staff.

The correction facility in Etobicoke houses more than 1,500 inmates.

Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 have already led authorities to suspend personal visits with inmates at Ontario and federal prisons.

On Thursday, the Ontario Public Service sent a memo to staff, directing them to stay home for 14 days if they travelled outside of the country. The memo, obtained by CBC News, states that if a role is "deemed critical by your ministry and you must attend work ... you should use personal protective equipment."

Staff 'not directed to self quarantine after travel'

But for days leading up to the new direction, one guard told CBC News: "Staff members were directed to not self quarantine after travel."

"This included front-line staff and managers that deal with vulnerable people in our care," said Adam Wiltshire, a correctional officer at Penetanguishene. 

A spokesperson for Ontario's Solicitor General said the ministry has been in contact with public health "to ensure the continued health and wellbeing of our staff and those in our custody.

"We are making further changes to protect our frontline corrections workers and our healthcare system from the burden an outbreak in our correctional system would cause," the ministry said in an email to CBC News.

Facilities are cleaned daily or as required and "if an outbreak of any communicable disease occurs or is suspected, institution officials take immediate precautionary containment measures in accordance with operating procedures," ministry spokesperson Kristy Dennette said.

Ministry not commenting on guard's condition

Asked about the guard at Toronto South, Dennette said, "Our thoughts are with the correctional officer and his family during this time."

Dennette declined to comment on the guard's condition, citing privacy concerns. 

Who knows how fast it will spread once we have an outbreak inside?- Chad Oldfield

"The ministry has been in contact with the local public health unit in response to COVID-19 to ensure the continued health and wellbeing of our staff and those in our custody. The health and safety of our staff and those in our custody is a priority," she said.

Additional measures to protect against the spread of COVID-19 in jails include allowing inmates serving time on weekends temporary absences from custody. Correctional services will also have the option to issue temporary absences beyond the 72-hour maximum and those granted temporary absences will not have to a jail every weekend, the ministry said Friday.

The Ontario Parole Board will now also be able to hold hearings in electronic or written form, instead of only in person.

'Unsafe, irresponsible'

One former Maplehurst Correctional Complex guard told CBC News that before the new measures were laid out, some staff members were being threatened with the loss of their job or pay if they didn't come into work.

"Who knows how fast it will spread once we have an outbreak inside?" Chad Oldfield, vice-chair with the Ministry of Employee Relations Committee said, adding the previous rules were "unsafe and irresponsible."

Precautionary efforts were visible in a Toronto courtroom on Friday morning.

At Kalen Schlatter's first-degree murder trial in the death of Tess Richey, a special constable standing near Schlatter wore blue surgical gloves and a white mask.

Schlatter has been kept in custody at the Toronto South Detention Centre during his trial, which is one of the only criminal trials still running in the province.

But Oldfield says guards need more. The union representing jail staff wants screening measures to include temperature checks for all people entering the buildings, and doubling the sanitization of the facilities," he said. 

"We are in a global pandemic," said Oldfield. "These are not labour issues. They are human ones."

With files from Adam Carter, Shanifa Nasser

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