Many jailed and working inside Saskatchewan's correctional centres feel the provincial government has failed those on the front-lines of the system during the pandemic, but those responsible for the provincial facilities say the government did everything humanly possible to keep people safe.
More than 600 inmates and 200 correctional staff have been infected with COVID-19.
CBC reviewed more than 100 pages of complaints filed by inmates during the pandemic. They show that many in provincial care felt let down as COVID-19 spread.
The dozens of complaints, handwritten by inmates and obtained through Freedom of Information Legislation, detail the conditions and the stress they felt as the limited programming they had access to slowly dwindled away.
Robin Ledoux, an inmate at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre, lived through the pandemic inside. He claims he spent 27 consecutive days under strict COVID-19 protocols, during which time he alleges he was mistreated, having to ask to use the bathroom and sometimes being denied.
Ledoux said those denials resulted in him having to use his waste pail as a toilet numerous times. He said the treatment is cruel and unusual.
"It's rank," he said in an interview from the jail earlier this year.
Ledoux said he was regularly isolated for 48 hours at a time, only being let out of his cell for requested bathroom breaks and for a shower that often felt cut short. He said staff often denied him things like medication thats helps him stay off meth, cleaning supplies and proper clothes.
"Honestly, they don't care," he said.
Complaints paint grim portrait
Ledoux's concerns are echoed by many inmates.
One complaint from an inmate at Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert says her mental health suffered greatly from the facility's library being closed.
"It would be something for us to do," wrote the inmate, whose name has not been released for privacy reasons. "To take our minds off of the crazy that is our lives. When people dwell on the bad, bad things can happen.
"If I don't have something to read, I think about the different ways to off myself in jail."
The complaints range from inmates who work as cleaners in the jails complaining about poor payment, to healthy inmates being housed among those with COVID-19.
An inmate from Saskatoon Correctional wrote that he is afraid for his health and asked those overseeing him to get him medical care. The province says inmates have regular access to doctors and nurses.
Another complaint listed multiple concerns ranging from deteriorating mental health to people's rights being violated. It was written by one inmate and signed by several others.
"WHY AM I STILL HOUSED WITH INFECTED INMATES??!!" Another inmate wrote in all caps. "CORRECTIONS IS PUTTING MY HEALTH IN SERIOUS JEOPARDY AND CONTINUES NOT TO DO A DAMN THING ABOUT IT. I HAVE A WIFE … OUT THERE TO GO TO HOME TO."
Ministry did everything humanly possible: Christine Tell
The complaints have put the provincial Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety under the spotlight, with some members of the public and the Opposition NDP calling for Minister Christine Tell to resign.
In an interview with CBC, Tell said she will not resign and that the government did everything it could to keep inmates safe.
She said the government put restrictions and protocols in place across the board in the early stages of the pandemic to slow the spread of the virus.
"There is nothing more that could have been done," she said. "I don't know of anything that's humanly possible."
Tell said the trends in the province's jails reflected those in the community.
She also said there are untold success stories in the system — including dedicated substance abuse treatment and reintegration units — and that staff on the front lines have played a critical role.
Tell said calls for her resignation were rooted in a lack of understanding. In response to calls for inmates to be released en masse, she said up to 95 per cent are in there for serious crimes and that releasing them would interfere with judicial decisions and be unfair to the victims.
"COVID is not a get out of jail free card," she said. "Public safety is paramount."
Before his death, prisoner advocate and poet Cory Cardinal told CBC he wanted a meeting with Tell to discuss what inmates are going through. When asked about that request, Tell said there are channels in place for inmates to file complaints and concerns, and that it's important those channels are used.
She said the ministry has been gathering data throughout the pandemic and will analyze it to prepare a better response moving forward. She said precautions have been adaptive from the start.
Tell said other provinces are already looking at how Saskatchewan handled COVID-19 in its jails.
Pandemic added pressures for those outside
The pandemic has been extremely hard for those with family inside.
Leonard Daniels has a daughter in Pine Grove Correctional Centre and said all he does is worry about the 20-year-old.
"More than I ever did in my life," he said.
While Pine Grove has had few COVID-19 cases, his daughter is living with pre-existing medical conditions. He said he wonders whether she will get the support she needs if she contracts the virus.
"It's not a very good environment," he said.
Daniels would like to see vulnerable people like his daughter released from provincial jails.
"Somebody is making a grave mistake."
Advocates working with inmates have been continuously critical of the province's response to the pandemic. Pierre Hawkins, the public legal counsel with the John Howard Society, said jails are failing inmates.
He said rehabilitation is not possible if inmates leave feeling resentful and that the COVID-19 pandemic has made chances of a productive sentence even less likely.
"As they're structured now, our correctional facilities are not built for rehabilitation. They are built for warehousing," said Hawkins.
He said demand for programming in jails far outpaces supply and that a significant investment is needed.
"The near-universal experience right now is people go in, their mental health gets worse, they wind up in a setting that is very tense, quite violent and quite traumatic, and then they're released far worse off than when they went in."
Tell said that while the pandemic has reduced the government's ability to provide programming, the province has been taking steps to overcoming the challenges. She said it has brought on more space in the form of trailers that are separated from the institution.
She also pointed to the province allocating roughly $52 million for a new remand centre in Saskatoon, saying the additional space and funding will help ensure inmates receive the support they need.
"We want them to be productive citizens," she said.
SGEU says cases in jails, youth facilities avoidable
Union leaders say workers in jails were victims of a government that ignored its own medical advice by not immediately prioritizing correctional workers and inmates for vaccination.
"Essential workers should have been made a priority and the government chose not to make that happen," said Barry Nowoselsky, chair of the Public-Service Government Employment bargaining committee. "There's people right now who are in the hospital, in ICU, and it was all avoidable."
Nowoselsky said he's heard from many members who feel frustrated and betrayed.
"To be treated the way they have been by the government, it's unacceptable."
Some progress made during pandemic
Kayleigh Lafontaine has seen two sides of the system. She worked for more than a decade in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan as a corrections officer and is now advocating for inmates as the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society Saskatchewan.
She said she's seen firsthand how these facilities can let inmates down.
"I know that the government feels like they're doing the best that they can with the circumstances, and sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't," she said.
Before the pandemic, representatives from Elizabeth Fry would visit Pine Grove twice a month to offer support and assess conditions, but Lafontaine said they haven't had access for more than a year.
She pointed to a recent call she had with leaders at Pine Grove as an example of the work being done by advocates.
In the call, they discussed ways to let inmates inside know about the services offered by Elizabeth Fry, expand programming for remand inmates and launch a pilot project where those leaving the facility will have access to basic necessities.
She said Elizabeth Fry and Pine Grove leadership have reaffirmed a partnership that will support inmates virtually for now and in-person as soon as possible.
"They seem to be really hopeful about sort of the changes and the trajectory we can go on together, so I'm hopeful too," she said.