'Everybody's coughing': Saskatoon inmates say COVID-19 cases weren't moved out of crowded unit
SASKATOON -- At least two inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 remained in a crowded unit inside Saskatoon's jail without being relocated or provided the opportunity to self-isolate, according to inmates who spoke with CTV News.
However, some of the inmates believe the number may be higher.
"I'm staying in my bunk," Damion Binning, an inmate who says he has tested positive, said over the phone Friday morning.
Binning said he believes more people will likely develop the illness because "everybody's coughing" in his unit.
"I asked them if I should be moved or anything because I don't want to put the other inmates at risk and I'm still here."
Binning said he was informed of his positive result by a nurse at the jail.
On Thursday, the Saskatchewan government reported that there were 72 new cases of COVID-19 at Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre (SPCC) — with 68 inmates accounting for the bulk of the positive test results. The other four cases were found in staff.
"It's a joke. There's no self-isolating on an overcrowded unit because there's a shared bathroom and one of the inmate cleaners has COVID," said Cory Charles Cardinal, another inmate living in Binning's unit.
Earlier this week Cardinal described cramped conditions inside his unit which have left inmates sleeping on the floor.
Cardinal said most inmates in his unit are now on a hunger strike in response to what they view as a quickly deteriorating situation.
"They're not giving us any cleaning (products), any gloves, anything to defend ourselves against the pandemic that is on our doorsteps," Cardinal said.
"We're going to see more numbers and more numbers. It's going to turn ugly." Cardinal said.
He and another inmate estimated there were as many as four known cases of the illness inside the unit. Other inmates who spoke with CTV News on Friday said they were aware of two.
On Thursday, Cardinal said there was an "atmosphere of growing alarm" in his unit where many inmates are immunocompromised.
Dakota Degoesbriand, who is also being held in the unit, said there was a single bottle of disinfectant spray for inmates.
"We have one spray bottle on the entire unit of disinfectant spray and the one guy with COVID was carrying it around and he was trying to spray down everything that he touched," Degoesbriand said over the phone Friday afternoon.
"But what about the other guys with COVID? Right? And they're basically they're giving us colouring books to make us feel better. They're giving us COVID crosswords," he said.
Degoesbriand said there is a "COVID art and writing contest" at the jail and inmates have been provided pencil crayons to share.
"It scares the hell out of all of us and they're making a joke about it," he said.
Degoesbriand and other inmates who spoke with CTV News said Binning and another inmate who tested positve were removed from the unit later in the day.
They also claim Cardinal eventually was "hauled out" of the unit because he kept pushing for more cleaning supplies.
Theron Lee Fox told CTV News that the inmate who sleeps on the bunk directly below him tested positive for the illness.
"He tested positive yesterday for coronavirus and they left him and this other guy on the unit," Fox said.
"Honestly feel like I'm not gonna be able to see my kids again."
The Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety responded in an email statement sent late Friday afternoon which did not directly address the inmates' experience in their unit.
"We are working with public health authorities to ensure that we are doing everything we can to reduce the likelihood of further spread of the virus within the facility," the ministry's communications director Noel Busse said.
According to the ministry's numbers, as of Friday afternoon there were a total of 99 cases at the jail with 80 inmates and 19 staff now testing positive.
Earlier this week, 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.
"While we do not have a specific timeline for when the temporary structures at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre will be ready, we are doing the necessary infrastructure work to have them operational as soon as possible," Busse said.
The units in Regina were operational as of Friday, according to Bussee.
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 facilities' populations more generally.
Glenn Billingsley, who serves as labour relations officer for the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU) which represents workers at SPCC and the province's other correctional facilities, said he has "grave concerns" about the present situation.
He said between 170 and 200 workers provincially are awaiting their COVID-19 test results.
"We don't expect the numbers to be, you know, encouraging. I mean, how often do they get tested? This is the first time they've been tested through the ministry and through the Saskatchewan Health Authority that we're aware of," Billingsly said in a Zoom interview.
While much of the focus is on inmates inside the jail due to the explosion in case counts, Billingsly said workers are also in a "seriously risky situation."
"What we don't want is for the infection to get outside the correctional centre and brought to their homes of the correctional workers. It's very important that we keep our families safe, and our communities as well."
In a statement to CTV News on Saturday, Minister of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety Christine Tell said the ministry is “deeply concerned with the rise in cases at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre.”
“Since the start of the pandemic, our focus has been on keeping the virus out of our facilities. We have taken strict measures, based on direction from public health authorities, to limit and reduce the spread of COVID-19, including restricting visitation, quarantining new admissions for 14 days, and isolating all offenders who have shown symptoms," Tell said.
Tell said that Public Prosecutions is currently taking the outbreak at Saskatoon Correctional Centre into account when assessing bail matters — a measure which helped reduce the inmate population at the province's correctional facilities by around 30 per cent early in the pandemic, according to the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan.
The change was temporary, with the number of inmates held on remand while awaiting trial rising again by mid-summer according to the organization.
In her statement, Tell also pointed to steps taken by the ministry including requiring masks for staff since the summer and mandating masks for inmates this week — a measure many of the inmates CTV News spoke with said they had been asking for.
“We are also doing continuous, ongoing testing of all offenders at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre for the foreseeable future," Tell said
“We will continue to work with public health officials on responding to this outbreak, as we have throughout the pandemic."
--With files from Shawn Churchill and Chad Leroux.