“A disaster awaits”: in the largest coronavirus outbreak in prison in Canada

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VANCOUVER – Something disturbed Dr. John Farley while he was doing his usual patrols in federal prisons in British Columbia in the early spring.

As an infectious disease consultant for the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) for the past 20 years, Farley spends part of his week traveling to various prisons in his GMC pickup to treat inmates with HIV or AIDS. ‘hepatitis.

In mid-March, as fears of COVID-19 intensified and officials urged social distancing, Farley noticed that some prisons he visited still lacked basic screening procedures – and even disinfectants for hands – at their entrances. Some prison nurses, he said, complained of not getting a lot of advice and looking for information online.

Looking back, Farley said he thought it was only a matter of time before an institution saw its first case.

“It was clear to me … it was a disaster that had to happen,” he told the Star.

Indeed, a few days later, Farley learned that his planned visit to the average security prison of 300 detainees at Mission Institution had been canceled. He learned that some inmates had developed symptoms and were awaiting the results of the swab tests.

Dr. John Farley, an infectious disease consultant for the Correctional Service of Canada, says the agency must adopt an aggressive screening and contact tracing strategy.

By that time, Farley had begun contacting his colleagues in correctional services, urging them to establish a committee of experts and specialists to develop a strategy to prevent the spread of the virus within the prison system.

He argued that instead of focusing on confinement and waiting for symptoms to appear, CSC should adopt an aggressive strategy of screening and contact tracing. However, Farley said he quickly found himself sidelined.

“If I can allow myself to go forward – fast forward to where we are now – I think that was part of the Achilles heel of why we are here,” he said. he stated, referring to a lack of screening and testing.

Within weeks, Mission Institution, located approximately 80 kilometers east of Vancouver in Mission, British Columbia, became the site of the largest coronavirus outbreak in all of Canada’s federal prisons.

The number of confirmed cases at the facility increased to 134, with 121 inmates and 13 staff members positive. 70-year-old inmate Paul Felker, who was serving a life sentence for the murder of a young Aboriginal woman, died last month.

Farley is among a growing number of community members – including prison staff, lawyers, relatives of inmates and union representatives – who are asking why the mitigation measures were not implemented sooner .

Mission Institution fell into “utter chaos” after entering custody, prison insiders told The Star. Front line workers argued with management over access to protective gear, while inmates shouted and knocked on their metal doors.

The lawyers recently filed a class action claim alleging that the prison authorities failed to protect the detainees and deprived them of their liberty by detaining them in conditions “similar to solitary confinement”.

“Failure to mitigate the risks from the start has resulted in a situation where we do have half of the inmates … who have tested positive,” said an employee familiar with prison health and safety practices and who asked for anonymity.

“If these figures appeared in other contexts, people would shout bloody murder. “

A memorandum to the inmates of Shawn Huish, director of Mission Institution, dated April 16, details prison attempts to cope with a coronavirus epidemic.

P wishful thinking ’

Surrounded by forests and mountains, the medium security section of Mission Institution consists of five units built in the 1970s, each housing approximately 40 inmates, plus a more recent 96-bed unit. Each detainee has his own cell.

A minimum security prison operates next door.

According to a report by the Correctional Investigator of Canada last year, almost half of inmates at Mission Institution were between 50 and 64 years of age and 12% were 65 years of age and older.

On March 14, just days after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, CSC announced that it was suspending all inmate visits across the country.

But that was not enough, said Farley.

“We have the opportunity to be proactive; we have a certain delay before the virus enters our prison community (I hope this is not the case, but it is wishful thinking) “, he wrote in an e-mail from March 23 to colleagues in the correctional service.

At that time, Stan Stapleton, national president of the Union of Security and Justice Employees, who represents prison uniforms, office, support and other personnel without uniforms, sent a letter to Anne Kelly, the Commissioner. of the CSC in Ottawa, imploring him not to treat the emerging health crisis as “business as usual”.

Mission establishment officials pushed to pursue certain programs, such as college courses and job training, because they wanted to keep detainees occupied, say prison insiders. But at the end of March, the programs were cut and the staff sent home. However, inmates could still use common areas, such as the dining room and the playground, a grassy area the size of a soccer field.

“So it was, in essence, the worst of both worlds – prisoners were grouped in a confined and contagious space before being released to infect others,” said Simon Cheung, counsel for Prisoners’ Legal Services in Burnaby, in British Columbia, a legal aid clinic that corresponded with many inmates from Mission Institution during the outbreak.

“The danger exists”

In early April, even with physical distancing rules in place, the situation became increasingly untenable in the eyes of staff.

A dozen inmates in three of Mission’s six units had symptoms of COVID-19. The managers wanted to allow inmates from the three remaining units some freedom of movement, but the guards feared it would lead to more potential exposures, said a correctional officer who requested anonymity.

On the evening of April 3, correctional staff told managers that they were invoking section 128 of the Canada Labor Code, which states that an employee may refuse to work if he believes that a danger exists at the workplace. job.

“A 128 is,” We don’t have time to figure this out, we have to isolate and control, lock everything down until we can find some sort of resolution, “” said the correctional officer.

The interior of a new medium security unit at Mission Institution in British Columbia

After a tense meeting between management and staff that night, the managers agreed to lock the entire prison, the officer said. This meant that the detainees were relegated to their cells and that food would be delivered to them.

The same evening, an assistant director was informed by the health unit that the first positive test result had returned for an inmate who had a kitchen work assignment.

The next day, when CSC staff working in the kitchen reported, they were sent home and told to self-quarantine, fearing they might have been in contact with the infected inmate.

As staff scrambled to get reinforcements from other institutions, managers picked up 300 hash browns and 300 McDonald’s McMuffins for inmates.

For some time, prison insiders said, some inmates with symptoms were taken to another section of the facility. But as the cases ballooned, it became impossible to separate them from the rest of the population.

“You can see how quickly our numbers have skyrocketed,” said the correctional officer.

Meanwhile, the heated debate in society over the need for masks was also taking place within the prison walls.

When some staff members brought their own masks to work, they said they could not wear them. Staff said management feared the masks would scare the detainees, said Derek Chin, regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

“It was the mentality. On the contrary, it is the most proactive approach, “he said.

But once the lockdown started, new protocols were introduced. Officers of all units would wear surgical masks while performing their duties. Any staff member who interacts with an inmate who is symptomatic or who tests positive should wear a mask, gloves, goggles and a gown.

“Feel condemned”

The atmosphere inside the prison became tense.

“We have to put our chairs in front of our doors if we want meals and stand in the back of our cells when the door is open,” wrote an inmate in a letter to a friend, who shared it with the Star.

“Isolation and confinement in cells with no response or comfort is a source of anxiety. I feel like I’m waiting for an invisible ball. ”

He said the staff were walking around with protective gear, “which adds to the stress and the feeling of being sentenced at the same time.”

The correctional officer said the inmates were becoming hostile.

“They’re screaming, they’re screaming, they’re slamming doors, they’re covering windows. “

In addition, many correctional officers entered quarantine, fearing they might have been in contact with inmates who tested positive.

“There would be days when you would come to work and there were six officers to run the entire prison,” when there could normally be 20, said the correctional officer.

The supply of personal protective equipment also remained a persistent problem.

Surrounded by forests and mountains, the medium security section of Mission Institution houses approximately 300 inmates. Of these, 121 tested positive for COVID-19.

On April 13, when the number of infected inmates was 41, the union representing correctional officers asked CSC in a press release to ensure that all inmates and staff had masks. They also said that staff movements between the institutions should stop.

Others had expressed the same concern.

A nurse emailed Farley to let him know that staff at long-term care facilities were no longer allowed to work at multiple sites to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, Mission Establishment staff were always back and forth between minimum and medium security.

“Myself and some others believe – even with PPE (which is in an unknown quantity) – that this represents too great a risk for our populations,” wrote the nurse.

“Get no information”

It was also a scary time for the relatives of the detainees.

Joanne Fry, whose son is serving a life sentence for setting fire to five, set up a private online forum so that the parents of the detainees can support each other and stay informed.

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“I started to receive various members of my family who called me crying and in hysteria,” Nobody will answer, nobody will speak to me, I do not receive any information “, so my initial objective was to create this association … to be a support system, “she said.

In mid-April, Fry sent an email to Shawn Huish, director of Mission Institution.

“Since none of our families are able to receive information by phone and most of the messages are not returned, we ask if one of the staff members would be willing to contact us in order to relieve our stress and our anxiety, “she wrote.

She said she never received a response.

Fry herself panicked when a prison chaplain called her one day to tell her that her son had been taken to hospital, but did not provide any other information.

After she was unable to communicate with anyone in the prison, she drove 40 minutes to the facility and “melted” at the counter.

“I shouted, cried, begged,” Just look on the computer. Let me talk to health care, just tell me something. Is my son okay? “”

The next morning, she learned that her son did not have COVID-19.

Beginning in the second week of April, inmates were given 20 minutes a day to get out of their cells to make phone calls, take showers or do laundry.

But on April 16, the director told inmates that there could be times when this was not possible, as staff must respond to incidents and emergencies.

“If time does not allow an entire unit to receive all the opportunities, the others will be the first to receive them the next day. “

One inmate expressed frustration in a letter to his wife, who shared it with the Star.

“The way things are going could just as well let everyone understand and be done with it. I’m so f —— tired of being locked up in my cell … They only gave us five minutes to shower, so I had to sacrifice the shower to be able to call you. ”

According to the class action, an inmate attempted suicide during the isolation.

Correctional officials said in an April 25 press release that every effort was made to give detainees safe time outside their cells.

Insiders this week said the prison had started letting detainees go out into the courtyard in small groups for 45 minutes of exercise.

“We don’t have crystal balls”

In late April, CSC officials reported that all detainees at Mission Institution had been tested for COVID-19. The agency also said hand washing stations and additional hygiene items were delivered and common areas were disinfected several times a day. Detainees and staff were also given masks to wear.

But the correctional officer said that disinfecting the facility had been difficult.

A cleaning team of 14 people was brought in in mid-April. But there was a language barrier and it was obvious that the crew – some of whom wore boots with price tags – did not know the cleaning products, said the correctional officer.

Another cleaning team arrived a few days later with a disinfectant fogging machine which triggered breathing problems in some detainees.

This incident is mentioned in the trial.

“On or about April 20, 2020, CSC hired a” padded “team to decontaminate Mission Institution,” said the claim. “However, the applicant and the class were not removed from their cells and were thus exposed to harsh chemicals. “

Correctional officials said that every effort was made to safely give Mission detainees time outside their cells during a coronavirus outbreak. Insiders said this week that the prison had started letting detainees go out into the courtyard in small groups for 45 minutes of exercise.

The case has not been certified as a class action and its claims have not been tested in court.

CSC did not file a response on Thursday.

The Star repeatedly asked to speak with CSC officials this week and sent the agency a list of questions. A spokesperson said they were unable to respond due to the ongoing litigation.

A spokesperson for Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair said in an email on Friday that a mobile medical unit had been installed in a nearby hospital to support detainees at Mission Institution and that 100 of the 120 detainees tested positive have since recovered.

“We know that the efforts we have made so far are working. “

Industry observers wonder if some of the problems at Mission Establishment could have been avoided if CSC had taken creative action earlier, including the elimination of low-risk inmates, such as the elderly and the elderly. bad health.

Prisons are known as “spawning grounds” for the disease, said Mary Campbell, retired Director General of Public Safety Canada in the Corrections and Criminal Justice Directorate.

“Take them out now.” “

Instead, CSC’s strategy was to pull up the drawbridge and shoot down, she said.

“Boy, you should be very lucky with this strategy. “

But the correctional officer from Mission Institution said that such an approach was not realistic. Halfway houses are not accepting anyone at this time. In addition, it would put unfair pressure on parole officers to do all of these assessments.

“I get the bleeding heart that says,” Free him, he’s low risk “. And if? What if we don’t have safeguards in place and this person comes out and rapes someone’s child or kills someone? Said the officer.

“We don’t have crystal balls. “

However, rights groups have called for a public inquiry into the detainee who died in isolation.

“The public needs to know what happened at Mission Institution and how the inmate who died was treated; a confidential investigation would not be enough, “the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said in a press release.

Farley, the infectious disease consultant, maintains the lack of aggressive testing and screening at the start of the pandemic, which means that the prison was still catching up.

“It shouldn’t have been the epicenter if we treated it right at the start.”

Mission Establishment worker with knowledge of occupational health and safety practices stated that prison directors should not take full responsibility – in some cases, they simply followed orders from above, all by processing contradictory information between different health authorities.

However, the employee said there were mitigation measures they could have taken earlier, such as reducing the number of people entering and leaving the prison and not waiting for “symptoms except whole ”before the test.

“We had a perfect storm of not being able to access sufficient amounts of PPE, of not being able to test widely enough at the start,” said the employee.

“Let’s learn our lessons and be ready for the next wave. “

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