Inmates say they can’t protect themselves from COVID-19 at the Edmonton Remand Centre (ERC) where it’s difficult to physically distance, access masks or practice good hygiene.
They say some inmates are not reporting symptoms or consenting to tests to avoid the quarantine unit described as “hell,” with at least 22.5 hours in lock-up, little time to shower or make calls, and no access to books or the canteen.
Concerns around compliance have also been raised by an infectious disease specialist, a judge and lawyers including Tom Engel who warned Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health of problems in April.
They’re urging authorities to depopulate jails, make guidelines mandatory and implement audits to avoid an outbreak that could spread to the public.
“The conditions of confinement are ordinarily cruel regarding being locked up 22.5 hours per day with almost nothing to do, but added to that is the intense fear I am experiencing of contracting COVID-19 and dying from it,” wrote one inmate in a sworn affidavit on July 25.
“Quarantine … is hell, and I believe this provides an enormous disincentive for prisoners to truthfully report any symptoms.”
CBC is not revealing the identities of four inmates who contributed to this story for their personal safety or due to a publication ban.
Recommendations for Alberta jails are found in the Guide for Management of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) in Correctional and Remand Facilities in the Province of Alberta.
Staff are advised to reinforce hygiene practices, increase space between inmates and disinfect common areas and surfaces more often.
The guide emphasizes the importance of providing activities for the mental health of prisoners in absence of group activities.
The document calls for personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies to be well-stocked and available.
“Staff are directed to wear masks continuously to prevent the spread of the virus (that they may have been exposed to in the community) to inmates and coworkers,” the guidelines state.
‘No gloves, no masks’
But in jail where double-bunking is the norm and respiratory droplets can shower down from upper to lower bunks, inmates said cleaning and hand-washing are sporadic but it’s difficult to get masks or physically distance.
High-contact surfaces such as telephones and showers are inadequately cleaned while disinfectant and hand sanitizer are hard to come by, they said.
In an email, lawyer Steve Smith said prior to testing positive for coronavirus, his client was in a cell with roughly seven unmasked inmates awaiting court. Inmates expressed concern that the cell is not regularly cleaned.
“A lot of the seniors are alarmed. They’re terrified. Most of these guys have severe medical problems and they try and do what they can to clean up,” said an inmate in a recent phone interview with CBC.
“You have a bunch of guys coming off dope. They’re sick, they’re exhausted, they’re emaciated, they’re homeless — people that don’t have any sense of hygiene.
He said the book supply is meager and mask-use is sporadic.
“Right now, all three guards have no gloves, no masks on, one of them has it dangling around his ear. Another one is using it like a slingshot.”
With so little to do and fear and aggression up, the wait to see a psychologist can be months, inmates said.
‘Tinder for the fire’
In a sworn affidavit on May 3, Dr. Stephen Sahfran, a professor of infectious disease at the University of Alberta, said hospitalization or death from COVID-19 is more likely among prisoners than the general population.
He said preventing outbreaks in congregate living facilities is essential because they “serve as tinder for the fire in more generalized outbreaks” and the larger the facility, the greater the risk. With roughly 1,500 prisoners, ERC is the largest detention centre in Canada.
Eight of the ten largest outbreaks in the U.S. as of May occurred in correctional facilities, Sahfran wrote.
He said to reduce risk of infection, jails must reduce the population and provide remaining inmates with individual cells, sinks and toilets, while ramping up cleaning so they can follow preventative strategies like everyone else.
Sahfran’s affidavit was entered as evidence in the case of D.H., who was granted a bail review in June.
“The evidence is clear that (the guide’s) implementation has not been complete … and that (D.H.) has little ability to control the enforcement of measures which might minimize the particular risks to him,” wrote Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Donna Shelley in her decision, noting testing is voluntary.
“There has been little testing and there is no random testing regime in place in relation to the hundreds or thousands of people who are either confined there or enter and leave it each day.”
Defence Eric Crowther said courts across Canada have repeatedly accepted institutional statements outlining COVID-specific policy guidelines as evidence of sufficient specific countermeasures.
Engel, who represents D.H., said authorities need to open up closed areas at ERC and reduce the population in order to single bunk and allow remaining inmates to physically distance.
As president of the Canadian Prison Law Association, Engel said he warned Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw about problems in April and called for random audits that should be posted online “so the public is aware of what’s going on.”
“She’s absolutely ignored the concerns we raised about prisoner health, staff health and the public health,” Engel said in an interview on Thursday. “The average stay in the Edmonton Remand Centre is something like 17 days. People come in and out, they go back out in the public.”
In response to a question by CBC this week, Hinshaw said she had not considered whether audits should be implemented.
The province said infection prevention and control measures are led by Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the Alberta Justice and Solicitor General, not Hinshaw.
According to Alberta Justice, between March 15 and August 7, there were 5,290 swabs sent for testing from provincial correctional, remand and young offender centres including 2,488 from the ERC. No numbers were provided comparing the number of arrivals to voluntary tests, as requested by CBC.
There have been no deaths at correctional facilities and nine positive tests among inmates including three at ERC where inmates were infected before arriving. There have been been no staff infections.
In emails, officials said many steps are taken to prevent transmission including testing and quarantining new arrivals, physical distancing, enhanced cleaning procedures, and screening for inmates and staff who continuously mask.
Inmates and young offenders have access to radios and reading and writing material and shared items are sanitized before and after each use, the province said.
AHS staff conduct regular inspections to ensure appropriate health and mental health protocols are adhered to, officials wrote.
“The low number of cases identified to date is a testament to this work,” Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said.
Additional quarantine space
Alberta Justice said Alberta’s occupancy rate in adult correctional facilities is approximately 50.8 per cent compared to provinces such as Ontario that are close to capacity.
“This means there is more space to move, separate and isolate inmates as needed to maintain physical distance – one of the most important measures in preventing spread,” a spokesperson wrote.
Alberta Justice listed multiple spaces available for additional quarantine and isolation units including a vacant ERC unit with 72 beds that could be ready within hours.