Family members and lawyers alike in the dark as COVID-19 outbreak rages at Milton jail

·4 min read

Criminal defence lawyer Alison Craig had a difficult time sleeping one night last week, as she couldn't stop thinking about one of her clients.

He's a senior over the age of 70, and currently an inmate at the Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton, Ont. — which is dealing with a massive outbreak of COVID-19.

"He called me, and I've never heard terror in anybody's voice like I heard in his voice," Craig said on CBC Radio's Metro Morning Wednesday. "He's on a regular range, despite his age. And he actually called me looking for a referral to help him prepare a will."

"I couldn't sleep very well that night. The terror in his voice was something I hadn't heard in a long time."

That man was one of the only clients she has been able to get in touch with, as the facility remains under lockdown because of the virus. The most up to date figures from the province show 116 inmates and 59 staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

Late last month, the province announced that the jail would not accept new inmates.

Charlotte DeSouza, whose son Matthew is an inmate at the facility, is desperately hoping to get in touch with her son, as he has tested positive for COVID-19. The two haven't spoken in almost two weeks.

"I just want him to know that I'm praying for him and hope he's okay," she said.

Concerns over crowding

But, DeSouza added, her only details about the situation have come from a call from another inmate who knows her son.

"They're very very concerned that they have too many people in one cell," she said.

"The whole range has COVID."

LISTEN | DeSouza and Craig explain what they know about Maplehurst:

DeSouza also said she was told many inmates haven't even been able to shower for two to three weeks.

"What's frustrating is nobody from the jail gets a hold of you to tell you these things," she said.

"For a mother or any family member, we're worried because we'd like to know what's going on with our loved ones."

Richard Agecoutay/CBC
Richard Agecoutay/CBC

In an emailed statement, the Ministry of the Solicitor General said that staff are "making every effort" to let inmates shower and be able to use the phone on "a daily basis.

"Any inmate that tests positive for COVID-19 is placed under droplet precautions and isolated from the rest of the inmate population while they receive appropriate medical care," the statement reads

"The ministry continues to work with local public health authorities to complete contact tracing, and voluntary testing of inmates and staff is ongoing."

Peter Figliola, president of Local 234 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents correctional officers at Maplehurst, told CBC News the numbers inside the facility have started to stabilize "a little bit.

"Everything that's happening right now at the facility is happening to try to keep everyone safe," he said.

Ministry says health and safety is its 'top priority'

Craig said she's finding it difficult to get through to clients at all, and has heard about COVID-positive inmates being in cells with inmates who hadn't tested positive.

"It's overcrowded," she said.

The facility is currently in full lockdown, she said, which means inmates are in their cells 24/7. There is a program where people are supposed to get out for showers or calls every four days, but Craig said she has heard about people going at least a week without either.

"It seems to me that the shower program isn't even being implemented," she said, noting that many people inside the facility haven't been convicted, and lawyers need to be able to speak with them to discuss their cases.

"It's next to impossible," she said.

Figliola said staffing is an issue, and the union has been requesting additional resources to help, so inmates can access phones or shower more frequently.

"When you don't have the resources or the staff to do that, it's just something that becomes unsafe to do," he said.

The ministry's statement says that protecting the health and safety of staff and people in custody is its "top priority."

The statement goes on to note changes it says it has made across all provincial correctional facilities, including testing all newly admitted inmates with their consent, housing all newly admitted inmates in a separate area for a two-week period, as well as providing personal protective equipment to all staff and providing masks for inmates "if required."