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Remand Centre prepared should COVID-19 concerns arise, spokesperson says

Union president says correctional facilities can be ‘petri dish’ for infections

With our area and the rest of Ontario on nearly complete COVID-19 lockdown, what of prison guards and inmates who are more familiar than most with lockdown conditions?

“Things are going well. We have no cases of COVID-19 at this point. We’re screening people as they enter the building, maintaining social distancing,” said Stephen Leask, Algoma Treatment and Remand Centre (ATRC) acting sergeant, speaking to SooToday. 

The facility, Leask said, has one and two-person cells.

There’s enough space in two-person cells for adequate social distancing, Leask said.

Sould an inmate test positive for COVID-19, “they would be kept separate from the rest of the population and put into an area by themselves and isolated.”

Guards and other staff members haven’t shown any symptoms of the virus, Leask said.

“The staff is good. They’re doing their job... protective equipment is available here but it’s not being used at this time because we have no cases, nobody presenting with symptoms at this time, so we need to conserve our equipment. Nobody's wearing masks,” though Leask said staff are using hand sanitizer and gloves as routine procedure.

Inmates, Leask said, have access to soap and water, but didn’t mention access to hand sanitizer in cells.

Leask said there are, currently, approximately 125 inmates, male and female, at the ATRC, with capacity for approximately 140.

A guard at a Greater Toronto Area correctional facility tested positive for COVID-19 and new procedures were put in place earlier this month.

“Ontario has taken measures to address capacity pressures within adult correctional facilities in order to keep our staff and those in our custody safe,” wrote Brent Ross, Ministry of the Solicitor General spokesperson, in an email to SooToday.

“Those being admitted to provincial facilities are subject to screening procedures for respiratory illness that align with guidance from the Chief Medical Officer of Health. In addition to inmates being medically assessed at admission, they also receive care as required during their incarceration,” Ross stated.

“If an outbreak of any communicable disease occurs or is suspected, institution officials take immediate precautionary containment measures in accordance with operating procedures, including notifying the local Medical Officer of Health, and provincial health professionals. Institution health care staff, working collaboratively and under the direction of the local Medical Officer of Health, manage the situation, including containment strategies such as medical isolation,” Ross wrote.

“We continue to monitor this situation and work closely with our public health partners as this situation evolves. The existing inmate phone system remains in place for use at this time. The ministry continues to evaluate all options.”

“Professional visits are continuing at this time. This includes lawyers and spiritual support volunteers such as native inmate liaison officers. For the safety of everyone, all professional visitors will be screened before being permitted entry,” Ross wrote.

As for staff safety, Ross stated “staff are advised to monitor their own health, and report to management any changes to their health status. There are also processes in place to address environment cleaning. Our correctional facilities are inspected and thoroughly cleaned daily and/or as required. Proper handwashing and cough/sneezing etiquette has also been communicated to staff and inmates.”

Earlier, an Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) news release, dated March 21, called on the government for a plan to protect OPSEU-represented correctional facility guards, other staff and inmates during the COVID-19 crisis.

“It's time for Corrections Ministry officials to act,” wrote Warren (Smokey) Thomas, OPSEU president.

"This threat needs to be nipped in the bud before it gets out of hand...correctional institutions can be a petri dish in terms of spreading infection and I'm worried the reaction to this threat has been too sluggish. We need to get ahead of the danger."

“The health and safety of both correctional staff and inmates in facilities is at risk and a clear and well thought plan is needed. We need to get the folks making decisions at the ministry level in a room with the medical experts who know what needs to be done to keep everyone in institutions safe.”

"Our correctional facilities were already under enormous pressure and strain long before COVID-19 came along and this virus could bring complete mayhem if it is not kept in check," Thomas wrote. 

Sault-based OPSEU officials were not available for comment.