Corrections minister won't pursue how COVID-19 spread in Saskatoon jail

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REGINA — Saskatchewan's minister of corrections and policing says she doesn't know how the novel coronavirus got into a jail where more than 100 inmates are infected — and she isn't going to try to find out.

Christine Tell says precautions were in place to try to prevent the virus's transmission in jails.

Inmates have been required to isolate for 14 days upon arrival and correctional officers have been wearing masks since the summer.

Despite that, the Justice Ministry said 107 inmates and 23 staff at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Monday.

"Why it came into the facility with all the precautions, I can't answer that," Tell said Tuesday.

Asked if she would try to find out what happened, Tell responded "no."

"I cannot say how it got in there," said Tell. "There's no possible way for us to find out."

NDP justice critic Nicole Sarauer said Tell's response was unsurprising.

"It makes me wonder if she worries about the safety of the inmates and the staff in our correctional centres," Sarauer said.

"This is a minister that shouldn't be a minister anymore."

The government made masks mandatory for all provincial inmates last week. Offenders had only been required to wear them when they showed symptoms or moved around a facility.

Some of the inmates at the Saskatoon jail say getting masks now is too little too late and they are worried about overcrowding.

Troy Maurice said his unit has a shared bathroom with 15 bunk beds and five portable beds on the floor.

“I feel like a science experiment. I feel like a lab rat being watched by scientists," the 29-year-old recently told The Canadian Press.

Maurice said the bunks are close together, there isn't enough air flow and inmates on the unit have been together for weeks.

“We shouldn’t be jam-packed like tuna fish," Maurice said.

"It was impossible to get away from everybody. There are guys who tested positive for COVID on the bottom bunks and the guys on the top bunks are just deathly scared."

Cory Charles Cardinal, another inmate, said people are coughing on his unit and the jail didn't put enough precautions in place to prevent the virus from spreading.

“They just gave out a little memorandum every once in a while saying try (to) wash your hands and social distance," said Cardinal, who added some inmates have been reluctant to get tested out of fear of being ostracized.

Tell acknowledged that overcrowding has been an issue in the province's jails for more than 20 years and said her government has expanded capacity.

"I think COVID is bigger than our government," she said

The Ministry of Justice said public-health officials have advised that movement between units should be restricted because offenders who test negative could still have been exposed to positive cases.

"This is a similar precaution that has occurred in other provinces that have experienced a COVID-19 outbreak in a correctional centre," said spokesman Noel Busse.

"Additionally, Corrections must continue to ensure that incompatible offenders (rival gang members) are not put in a situation where they are more likely to endanger themselves or others."

Busse said last week that most inmates in Saskatoon's jail who tested positive were asymptotic. Temporary trailers were brought in so those offenders could isolate.

Justice officials said no more inmates are being sent to the Saskatoon jail. They are being diverted to jails in Regina and Prince Albert.

The provincial government said that despite COVID-19 it has no plans to release offenders who are serving sentences.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2020.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press