Prevention measures lagged for weeks at B.C. prison with worst COVID-19 outbreak in Canada: unions
VANCOUVER -- Unions that represent staff at Mission Institution say it took weeks to put measures in place that could have prevented or slowed an outbreak of COVID-19 at the medium-security prison.
The cluster of cases continues to be the worst federal prison outbreak in Canada: 55 prisoners have tested positive and one inmate has died, while nine correctional officers and one other staff member have also contracted the novel coronavirus. (One day after publication of this story, B.C.'s provincial health officer announced five more positive cases at the prison, bringing the total to 70 cases.)
On March 25, the prison started to actively monitor inmates for symptoms of COVID-19 and prisoners got a message from the commissioner of the federal Correctional Service.
On April 1, inmates were no longer allowed to work in the prison kitchen, where they regularly work beside food service workers to prepare meals. An inmate who was working in the kitchen was one of the first to come down with the illness, said Kirsty Havard, a regional vice-president of the Union of Safety and Justice Employees.
The USJE represents workers such as prison food service workers, while prison guards are represented by the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.
While most British Columbians started physical distancing the week of March 16 -- staying at least two metres away from others to prevent the spread of COVID-19 -- inmates at Mission Institution continued to use communal areas like the prison gym and TV room until April 2.
And until April 8, prison staff were not issued a supply of medical-grade masks. In some B.C. prisons, employees who brought homemade cloth masks to work had them confiscated by managers.
In a statement emailed to CTV News Vancouver, the Correctional Service of Canada said prisons are continuing to operate in "a safe and secure way."
"These are unprecedented circumstances during which we need to ensure public safety and maintain operational readiness while protecting the health and safety of staff and offenders," the statement says.
On April 2, inmates were put on enforced self-isolation -- basically a lockdown where they were required to stay in their cells for most of the time, including meals, said Havard.
"The rest of the world was isolating in their homes and the inmates were still going to the gym, and being able to move around freely within the institution," said Havard.
Havard acknowledged that prison staff had to balance the risk of inciting a prison riot or other violence with the harsh lockdown measure, which she said had been put in place because inmates refused to self-isolate.
With fewer staff working, inmates are now confined to their cells for much of the day, and aren't getting taken to the yard or showers as often as they would be normally. A relative of an inmate previously told CTV News Vancouver that inmates are allowed just one shower a week.
But the delay in halting daily actives in the prison, where potentially infected inmates were coming into daily contact with each other, caused "concerns from everybody," Havard said. She said there could have been better communication with inmates about what was happening and why.
In their statement, the Correctional Service said the agency has suspended visits to inmates, group education and other programs.
According to the statement:
"The routine developed at Mission Institution is to allow inmates out of their cells every day to make phone calls to the families and to take a shower. The time out of cell varies every day depending on staffing levels. One of the priorities of the daily routine is to allow as much time as possible out of the cell, while still ensuring every inmate is given the same opportunity, and also ensuring inmates not spreading the virus and respecting physical distancing."
Then there was the need for medical-grade masks for staff and inmates as well.
Staff at Mission Institute did not get an adequate supply of N95 masks until April 8, as the number of cases continued to climb, and were initially told to wear the same one for two shifts. That has changed now, Havard said, and workers are being instructed to wear the same mask for just one shift.
People who wear N95 masks need to have them fitted properly, and be trained on how to put them on and take them off in a safe way, or they run the risk of contaminating themselves from the used mask.
While correctional officers are regularly trained on proper mask-wearing, other staff at Mission Institution did not get training for several days, Havard said.
In an emailed response to CTV News Vancouver, the Correctional Service of Canada said that because of worldwide demand for personal protective equipment like masks, the service is making an effort to conserve equipment.
Inmates have also been issued masks, the Correctional Service said.
At other prisons in B.C., staff have now been issued surgical masks. But several weeks ago, as information about mask-wearing was increasingly in the media, several employees at Matsqui Institution in Abbotsford tried to wear their own home-made masks at work. Managers confiscated them, Havard said.
"The management's concern was they were not sanitary," Havard said, "and they didn't want to upset the inmates by wearing the masks."
Two weeks later, Canada's public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, issued her official guidance on April 6 that wearing cloth masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Only then did prison management change their stance, Havard said.
However, it's still voluntary for most prison staff to wear masks, and even at Mission, Havard said members have reported seeing managers without masks walking between the medium security prison, where the outbreak is located, and the minimum security wing, where there is currently no outbreak.
Once it was known that one of the first inmates to test positive had worked in the kitchen, food services staff were sent home and told to self-isolate for 14 days, according to Havard.
They were told they should be tested only if they start showing symptoms. Some of those employees were later asked to come back to work before the 14-day period had ended because they were deemed to not have been in close contact with an infected inmate, Havard said.
"The kitchen worker felt different, they said well, I worked next to the inmate," Havard said.
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers has also reported that members who were initially asked to self-isolate for 14 days after they came into contact with an infected person have also been pressured to return early.
Havard said she and her members are frustrated that management is "still of the position that you need to be symptomatic to have testing," considering that it's now known that some people can have the novel coronavirus and infect others before they show any symptoms.
Havard said prison management have told her they have been in contact with B.C.'s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, and are following her guidance on testing.
In a statement, the Corrections Service said it is taking immediate precautions as soon as any employee learns they have been exposed to the virus, and anyone who employees might have had contact with after exposure are notified privately.
Movement between prisons
When food services staff at Mission Institute were sent home to self-isolate for 14 days, staff from Kent Institution were sent to replace them. It was "a mad scramble" to deal with the situation, Havard said, but any transfer between prisons, of either staff or inmates, increases the risk of spreading COVID-19 further.
Both unions are now asking for a cessation of staff rotation between prisons, similar to the restrictions now in place at long-term care homes in B.C. They're also calling for an isolation period of 14 days and testing for any inmate who is transferred between jails.
The Correctional Service says staff from other prisons are helping out at Mission Institution to help fill staffing gaps. "The protocol for return of employees to their home site will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis," CSC said.
The Correctional Service also said that all inter-regional and international prisoner transfers have been suspended.
Both unions say that while a cleaning company did disinfect the prison after the lockdown started, that cleaning only happened once and not not been repeated since.
CSC says it has put in place "enhanced cleaning protocols, including disinfecting common areas and high-contact surfaces" and is doing laundry and garbage disposal safely. The service did not specify how often the cleaning is happening.
"We continue to educate staff and offenders around prevention and the spread of illness, including the importance of good hygiene practices through posters, fact sheets, and ongoing written and verbal communication," the CSC statement says.
Halvard said staff are afraid to come to work at Mission Institution.
"They're going in every day in a closed, confined environment," she said.
"They want to do the right thing and keep Canadians safe and they're not being provided the proper equipment to keep themselves safe."