Guards say COVID-19 could ‘spread like wildfire’ inside and outside prisons

When a correctional officer enters the federal penitentiary in Springhill, N.S., they wait between two glass doors as someone on an intercom asks if they have any symptoms of COVID-19 or have been around someone with signs of the virus.

If the answers are no, they are buzzed inside to work.

The screening is supposed to prevent the virus from entering the institution, but it does little to temper another fear. What happens if it does make it inside, into the close confines of a prison with hundreds of inmates and procedures that make it nearly impossible to physically distance — from dispensing food or medication, to escorting someone in handcuffs.

The union that represents federal corrections officers says the “invisible threat has made an already dangerous working environment, even more dangerous.”

Yet Corrections Canada has been slow to make changes to protect inmates and staff from the virus and still isn’t using enough personal protective equipment, according to one correctional officer from the Springhill Institution and another who works at a New Brunswick prison.

CBC has agreed not to name the women as they’re not authorized to talk to the media and fear they could lose their jobs by speaking out.

“I didn’t sign up to have my safety put in jeopardy. I signed up to do a dangerous job and I expected to be supported when I did it. I didn’t expect to be put in harm’s way deliberately,” said the Springhill worker.

She said her employer’s definition of close contact with an infected individual is too narrow, and won’t prevent someone who may have been exposed from continuing to work. Over the past few weeks, staff were told they couldn’t wear masks, even when working closely with inmates who had recently arrived in the prison.

“Once it gets into the community it’s going to spread like wildfire. It’s going to spread inside and it’s going to spread outside,” said the correctional officer.

There are many retirees in the town of Springhill, she said, and she fears what could happen if an outbreak in the prison spreads to the community. “The town would be devastated. It’s just completely irresponsible.”

The New Brunswick officer said common areas and frequently touched surfaces — such as key pads, door handles, phones, computers and meal trays — need to be disinfected after every use or if there’s a new group of people passing through. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

As communities across Canada hunker down at home amid fears about contagion and public health orders, people working in prisons — a major employer in communities like Dorchester, N.B., Renous, N.B., Truro, N.S., and Springhill, N.S. — continue to oversee the thousands of people in custody, many of whom have pre-existing health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to infection.

The second correctional officer told CBC it’s been “quite terrifying” having people working in the prison system without personal protective equipment.

“If [an outbreak] happens, the health-care system will also be overrun with those staff and inmates. So while the general public is working really hard, we’re not in there and that could impact health care for the entire community,” she said.

So far, no inmates or staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in Atlantic Canada. But as of Wednesday evening, 48 corrections officers working at three prisons in Quebec have contracted the virus, as have 17 inmates. In Ontario, seven inmates and one correctional officer from the same facility have COVID-19, as do 11 inmates from a B.C. prison.

Surgical masks on the way

A month ago, the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which has 7,300 members across the country, called on Corrections Canada to fit front-line staff with N95 masks and protective equipment. This week, the union announced the employer would provide staff with surgical masks to try to prevent workers from passing on the virus in the event they have it.

But the workers who spoke with CBC questioned whether that went far enough, given surgical masks don’t prevent someone from contracting COVID-19 and inmates entering the prisons also pose a risk.

“It’s helpful, don’t get me wrong, but it’s still not where it needs to be for our officers that are unable to social distance and have to be in contact with inmates and other staff,” said the New Brunswick officer.

“A lot of other essential services, your nurses, your paramedics, your police, they’re being provided with equipment to protect them as well — so the face masks and some shields … gloves, gowns — we have none of that. We’re working against an extra layer of uncertainty.”

The corrections officers’s union, which represents the hundreds of prison employees in the Maritimes, declined to do an interview but issued a statement that said it is working with management to mitigate the risks for people working in the 49 institutions across the country.

One area it is challenging is how Corrections Canada defines close contact with someone with COVID-19. It’s considered to be:

  • being face-to-face with an infectious person for at least 15 minutes,
  • being in an enclosed space with an infectious person for at least two hours,
  • living with or spending prolonged time within two metres of someone with COVID-19 who was symptomatic and not self-isolating,
  • being sneezed or coughed on by an infectious person.

“We don’t feel the coronavirus adheres to timelines,” the union’s statement said.

Corrections Canada has said it is taking extra precautions to protect employees and offenders, including reducing staffing levels. A statement previously sent to CBC said prisons have suspended groups programs, temporary absences, visitors and transfers between institutions.

It also said across facilities, there are increased cleaning protocols.

Dr. Lisa Barrett, an expert on infectious diseases at the Nova Scotia Health Authority, said the risk of exposure to COVID-19 “depends on the current situation of the environment that you’re in.”

“If somebody has symptoms, that person should be masked. That’s the first thing,” she said. “If the person doesn’t have symptoms, who the worker is in with, then their chance of spreading the infection is quite low.

“And if they don’t have close or intimate contact, then what we usually say is that 10-15 minutes is not an extended contact time.”

However, Barrett said as the virus spreads in the community, and people with the virus show minimal symptoms, it will be “very reasonable” for everyone to be masked.

Common spaces

The New Brunswick officer said she’s still hearing of situations where colleagues didn’t have access to hand sanitizer or in some cases, soap. She said in order to be successful, common areas and frequently touched surfaces — such as key pads, door handles, phones, computers and meal trays — need to be disinfected after every use or if there’s a new group of people passing through.

“It’s incredible the amount of things that hundreds of people would be touching a day. So if we’re not doing just that bare minimum, we’re failing,” she said.

Some directives may be slow to take effect, too. The Springhill worker said offenders continue to arrive from other jails and the only information about their health is what they choose to disclose. She said although new arrivals are housed in a unit away from other inmates, everyone in isolation interacts when they shower, make phone calls and go outside.

“To me, you’re cross-contaminating the minute you put them together,” she said. “Unless you’re actually presenting symptoms, it’s just another place to house you.”

She’d like to see more thorough screening — like taking the temperature daily of people in isolation and keeping them completely separate — to prevent the introduction of COVID-19 into the facility.

“It’s almost like you’re the guinea pig: ‘Here, you go work with them and once you get sick, then we’ll know and we’ll do something about it.’ This is ridiculous,” she said. “Staff are scared to death to take it home to their families.”

The staff’s union said it has also been working with the employer to try to change schedules to ensure staff aren’t moving between different posts in a facility, in the event they are asymptomatic and contribute to further spread.

“Some sites continue to work through this change,” the union’s statement said.

The workers who spoke with CBC said staff were told they couldn’t wear masks, even when working closely with inmates who had recently arrived in the prison. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

Though staff received a directive about schedule changes from Corrections Canada on March 31, the woman who works at Springhill said people were still rotating through several sections of the facility. She worries the institution is going against public health guidelines.

“This is the time to be extreme. This is the time to go overboard with precautions, nobody has the right to gamble with people’s lives and safety,” she said.

The union has also asked Public Safety Minister Bill Blair for testing kits to ensure there isn’t a staffing crunch if people have to self-isolate for two weeks after any potential exposure.

“In this crisis, this is simply not practical for us and will result in significant staff shortages,” union president Jeff Wilkins wrote in his letter to Blair.

‘You feel like you’re almost disposable’

For now, the Springhill employee ends her days like most essential workers, getting undressed in the garage. She’s arranged for someone to drop off groceries so that she’s not moving around in the community any more than necessary.

When she starts her shifts, she carries her own Lysol and hand sanitizer and leaves a bag of essentials in her vehicle: sneakers, pajamas, extra medication and packages of snacks, just in case she’ll have to stay for longer than expected in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

“You feel like you’re almost disposable,” she said.


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