SASKATOON -- On Thursday, the Saskatchewan government announced 299 new cases of COVID-19 in the province — with 72 of the new cases from Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre (SPCC).

Inmates account for 68 of the new cases at the facility. Four staff members have also tested positive for the illness.

Earlier this week, there were just three known cases at the facility among inmates and eight workers with positive coronavirus test results.

"Corrections officials are working with public health on measures to reduce the spread within the facility and the correctional system," the province said in a news release.

"Additionally, all new admissions to provincial correctional centres will be tested for COVID-19 starting early next week. New admissions will continue to be quarantined for 14 days."

The Ministry of Corrections and Policing is instituting mandatory masking for inmates across all provincial correctional facilities, the province said. Staff members have been wearing masks since the summer.

There will be no new admissions to SPCC. Both sentenced and remanded inmates will be rerouted to provincial correctional centres in Regina and Prince Albert.

Earlier this week in a phone interview with CTV News, an inmate at the facility described crowded conditions and said there was a "culture of fear" growing among inmates because information about the pandemic was in short supply.

"There's inmates that are sleeping on the floor here, there's inmates with pre-existing health conditions. So it's a lot of stress. There's a lot of stress here, from the inmates that want to know what's going on with the pandemic," Cory Charles Cardinal said.

In another phone call Thursday after the cases were reported, Cardinal said conditions had not changed in his unit where many inmates are immunocompromised.

"So there's an atmosphere of growing alarm here," Cardinal said.

Pierre Hawkins, who serves as public legal counsel for the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, an organization that helps inmates reintegrate into their communities after release, says the group is very concerned about the large outbreak.

"Obviously, this is a very, very difficult virus to constrain," Hawkins said.

"What we know, and what has been the case across the country, across the continent and around the world, is that once this virus gets into inmate populations, it spreads like wildfire."

Hawkins reiterated the advocacy group's call to reduce the population inside provincial jails by arranging for the safe release of non-violent inmates who are being held on remand while they await their trials.

Diverting inmates who would otherwise be held on remand was initially a focus for the ministry and the courts early during the pandemic, at one point helping to reduce inmate populations by 30 per cent, according to Hawkins.

However, Hawkins said the number of inmates started rising again by mid-summer.

Hawkins believes the effort to thin out the number of inmates held in provincial facilities helped prevent a widespread outbreak at SPCC when five staff members tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year.

"They've been overcrowded for some time. Whatever steps that the ministry took to get those numbers down in April, they ought to be doing that again and they ought to be doing it persistently until we see the end of this pandemic," Hawkins said.

Noel Busse, the ministry's communications director, said there are now a total of 85 cases at SPCC among inmates and staff.

The ministry learned of the 72 new cases Thursday morning after a "fairly large round of tests" conducted earlier this week, Busse said during a teleconference with media.

Busse said immunocompromised inmates were central to the ministry's initial pandemic planning and that after the spike at SPCC it is looking into what else can be done for those with pre-existing conditions.

On Tuesday,  the ministry said it was working to set up modular living units at its facilities in Saskatoon and Regina to provide "flexibility" in managing the inmate population.

During Thursday's teleconference, Busse said the units in Regina are nearly operational.

"We're still getting the ones put together at the Saskatoon Correctional Center but we're hoping those will be set up in the near future," Busse said.

The ministry has not specified whether the trailers will be used to help isolate inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 or to help space out the facility's population more generally.

There are presently a total of 960 active cases in the Saskatoon area.