Tension, fear rising inside Dorm 3 of Ottawa jail over COVID-19

Stress and fear mount in Dorm 3 of the minimum security wing at the provincial jail in Ottawa over the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic while flu-like illness circulates.

Ministry of the Solicitor General said five COVID-19 tests of inmates at correctional facilities still pending

The stress is building inside the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre over COVID-19 fears.

Prisoners in a provincial jail in Ottawa say they are not receiving proper medical care for flu-like symptoms sweeping through the facility during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"We need help in here. Nobody is helping us, just looking down on us like garbage," said inmate Frank Benedict, 36, who began feeling flu-like symptoms two weeks ago but can't get tested for the coronavirus.

Benedict, who is from Akwesasne, a Mohawk community that straddles the Canada-U.S border about 120 kilometres west of Montreal, has had a cough, fever, joint pain, sore throat and even two bouts of vomiting.  He is still suffering from a cough and night sweats and just wants to get peace of mind on whether he has COVID-19.
"It drives me nuts inside, the stress is unbelievable," said Benedict, who has been incarcerated for a month-and-a-half at Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. Benedict believes he may have caught the coronavirus since entering the prison system. 

Stress and fear are mounting in Dorm 3 of the minimum security wing as inmates watch the spread of COVID-19 on the outside world on television.  

"Everybody is going through stress...the flu is going around in here," Benedict said. "The other day, someone who came back from court is sick. Everyone is getting sick, I'm not the only one."

Benedict said he's repeatedly filled out the required green form to see a doctor. But again on Wednesday his name was not on the list called out for inmates to see a physician.

He said a nurse comes in regularly but inmates are only given Tylenol. 

Inmates in Dorm 3 say it's difficult to see a doctor to check them for flu-like symptoms. This photograph was taken in 2016 from inside the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Dorm 3 holds 30 men who share 15 bunks, one urinal that barely works, two sinks, two toilets that often plug and two showers with a heavy amount of black mould. The black mould is so thick in their showers it can be peeled off, according to the inmates in Dorm 3.

The fan in the bathroom has been broken for three months.

The air the dorm does get is circulated through the wing, raising fears that a COVID-19 case in an adjacent unit could be transmitted through the vents. The dorm's windows have been covered because of construction, blocking sunlight. The Dorm 3 inmates say they rarely get any time out in the yard for fresh air.

"It's as if we are already treated as if we are already sick, already have the virus," said Wendell King, 38, from Akwesasne, who is also in Dorm 3.

Rumour of COVID-19 test hightened tension

An inmate at the jail was recently tested for COVID-19 after exhibiting symptoms, but the results came back negative, according to an official with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

The Ministry of the Solicitor General said in a statement that a total of 10 inmates have been tested at provincial correctional facilities. Five of those tests came back negative and five are still pending. 

"No inmates have been confirmed to have COVID-19 in our adult correctional institutions," said the statement.

It added that all new inmates admitted into a provincial correctional facility are screened for respiratory illnesses under guidelines set out by the Ontario Ministry of Health. 

"Inmates also receive medical care as required during the period of incarceration," said the statement. "As per the screening protocol, inmates are tested for COVID-19 as required."

The ministry said it has also cancelled personal visits to jails, and people serving weekend sentences can do their time from home after reporting in.

If an outbreak is detected at an institution, correctional health care staff would work with the local medical officer of health to deal with the situation, including containment strategies like medical isolation, the ministry said. 

The statement said correctional facilities are "thoroughly cleaned daily or as required" and that "proper hand washing and cough-sneezing etiquette has also been communicated to staff and inmates."

A jail official walks through a hall at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre where inmates in Dorm 3 say they are getting little information about plans to prevent COVID-19 from entering the facility.

The rumour of the COVID-19 test ramped up the stress inside Dorm 3 because they believed the inmate came from a neighbouring unit.

"Everything just hit me like a tonne of bricks," said Mitch Lahache Jocko, 38, who is also from Akwesasne. 

"I've never been scared of anything in my whole life, but this virus brings the fear factor to a whole other level."

Jocko, who bunks in Dorm 3, said inmates are getting very little information from guards or jail officials about what they are doing to prevent entry of the virus into the facility or how they know it's not already circulating. 

The jail distributed vegetable oil-based soap, guards are wearing gloves and masks, and new inmates continue to enter the jail, said Jocko, who has been inside for 24 months.

"I feel like we are in the dark with everything and they are not being 100 per cent honest with what is transpiring with this virus," said Jocko. 

"Even though we are inmates, I feel like I'm in Guantanamo Bay. There is no dialogue at all. We are just confined."

Inmate with pacemaker fears for his life

Leo Mavraganis, whose parents live in White Lake, Ont., said he picked up flu-like symptoms after returning from a court appearance last month. 

"I had a sore throat, I was coughing, I was sweating, I had a super high fever," said Mavraganis, who is also in Dorm 3. 

He said it took five days for a doctor to see him and he was put on antibiotics for bronchitis.

"I am still sick, I still have a cough, I still have a sore throat."

Mavraganis said tensions inside the jail continue to rise every day. 

"The stress levels are high, people are worried, people are stressed out, guys are in here with mental health issues," he said. "They are taking away our visits, they are taking away our yards and they covered our windows."

Pierre Aubin, 57, is from Ottawa and has a pacemaker. He said he's worried the virus could kill him. Aubin said he was in the maximum security wing but was moved to the minimum wing after he started experiencing breathing problems. 

"I am really concerned about the future of my life because I am going to be here for up to a year or more," said Aubin, who is also in Dorm 3. 

"They are saying that anybody 50-plus is at high risk. Well, I'd be high risk-plus because of my heart condition. I am hoping the government will be a little more lenient and either change their arrangements or something. I really don't know what to do."


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him