Prison justice society urges 'drastic action' as COVID-19 spreads in Calgary jail

·2 min read

CALGARY — The president of the Alberta Prison Justice Society is calling for drastic action after almost two-thirds of inmates at the Calgary Correctional Centre contracted COVID-19. 

Amanda Hart-Dowhun outlined the society's concerns in an open letter to Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu and his deputy, as well as to the Alberta Health Services medical director for correctional facilities and the director of the provincial jail. 

The lawyer notes the outbreak has grown to infect at least 104 inmates and 20 staff in just over a week.

"You must take drastic action to prevent further spread of COVID amongst inmates and staff and to ensure that you are able to maintain basic human rights for the inmates in your care," she wrote in the letter dated Monday. 

"If you do not take drastic action now, you are risking the lives of a large number of people that you are responsible for keeping safe, and you will be holding inmates in conditions that clearly breach Canadian human rights standards."

The letter cites a CBC News report in which infected inmates described being moved into solitary confinement, where they were living in filthy conditions, sleeping on the floor and receiving intermittent medical attention. 

"The conditions outlined above are similar to what one would expect in a third world prison cell, and they are far below the legal standard for holding inmates in Canada. You must take all steps to remedy those conditions immediately," Hart-Dowhun wrote. 

That could require releasing inmates temporarily into the community, she said. 

In a news release Friday, the vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said it's like a "horror story" inside the jail and workers are exhausted and feel abandoned by the government. 

“Our members are saying that inmates have only been wearing masks for a week,” said Bobby-Joe Borodey. “They were only given masks after the number of cases hit double figures.”

Blaise Boehmer, Madu's press secretary, said in an emailed statement that several infectious disease protocols and safeguards were put in place when the pandemic hit in early March and remain in effect. 

Those include identifying isolation spaces, testing all new admissions on arrival, enhanced cleaning and providing personal protective equipment to quarantining inmates outside of their cells when physical distancing is not possible.

Visits and programs were also suspended and inmates have been removed from food preparation duties. 

"The measures listed above can result in changes including adjusted routines, such as when an inmate is out of their space and the timing of meals, phone access and laundry. Inmates still receive their basic needs, including regular meals, medications and mattresses," Boehmer wrote. 

"Despite the demands of some, Alberta will not simply open the doors and release prisoners en masse."

Alberta Health Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published November 2, 2020.

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press