SASKATOON -- A newly released Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre (SPCC) inmate says he learned he had COVID-19 shortly after he was released.

He believes he contracted the illness due to the handling of a still-active coronavirus outbreak that began at the facility in late November. 

“They play with our lives,” Kevin Crane said. “COVID is a sentence as well, might as well include that in our sentences.”

As of Wednesday, 67 inmates and 18 staff members were infected with COVID-19 at SPCC, according to the province. 

Crane, 44, was sent to the jail in early September to serve a sentence. Shortly before he was released on Dec. 9, Crane said two inmates in his unit became infected with COVID-19.

He said they were kept in the same area as he and others who were not infected for an extended period of time. 

“They should’ve quarantined us or they should have taken those two guys out and put us in a different unit and re-tested us right away. They should’ve given us the right to not have COVID,” he said.

Crane, who is immunocompromised, said he began feeling sick and spent hours in bed, but he was told by a nurse at the jail that it was just the flu.

He said he was tested the day before he was released and was assured by staff that he was likely negative. 

However, the next day his test came back positive and he’s been a patient at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton ever since.  

“I might die,” he told CTV News from his hosptial bed. “I’m hooked up to things here.”

Crane said he’s concerned he may have passed COVID-19 to his family, who he saw right after he was released.

He said he is especially worried about his dad who is considered high-risk due to underlying health conditions.

“One thing I don’t want to do is hurt the people that came out of their way to come get me, that love me and I love them.”

Crane said he also worries about his friends that are still in jail at risk of contracting the virus.

“They think they have no rights. They feel like they're treated like dirty dogs on the streets. Nobody speaks for them,” he said. 

Crane believes the province could have reduced the transmission risk in his crowded unit, perhaps allowing him to avoid infection himself, by arranging for the release of inmates who are being held on remand — meaning they are waiting to see a judge and haven’t been convicted.

It’s a measure Shawn Fraser, CEO of the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, and his organization have pushed for since the start of the pandemic.

“We’re not calling for a free for all to let everyone out on the streets, obviously that’s not in anyone’s best interest. But what it does mean is using those tools we have to make sure that the population is down to a rate where people are able to socially distance and hopefully keep themselves safe,” he said. 

Fraser pegs that “safe” number in Saskatchewan around 1,500, down from the average of 2,000 inmates in custody, many of whom are being held on remand.

According to Fraser, about half of the Saskatchewan prison population is on remand, which he said is meant to be a “last resort” but that the province incarcerates and remands people about double the national average. 

“The reality is that if we were to follow the national average for incarceration in Saskatchewan, we would drop our number to around 1,500 people immediately. So, that’s what we’d really like to see.”

The Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety said it has no ability to release remanded inmates and that those decisions are made in court after discussion between a judge, defence counsel and prosecutors. 

It added that Public Prosecutions has directed prosecutors to consider the current outbreak in Saskatoon when assessing bail. 

However, for people who do end up being incarcerated, Fraser said it is important to ensure there is adequate testing in facilities like the Saskatoon Correctional Centre so that it is known if and when people are sick so that the necessary measures can be taken. 

He said there also needs to be supports in place for people who are released and could potentially be infected. 

“Now that it is so widespread in our institutions, releasing people can be a challenge too,” Fraser said.

“We got to make sure that as people are released from prison, that there’s adequate housing and proper isolation measures put in place for people.”

The ministry said those are steps it's already taking.

“Corrections staff work with public health authorities and social services to ensure proper measures have been put in place for symptomatic or COVID-19 positive inmates to isolate upon leaving custody.”

It pointed to the fact SPCC has not admitted new inmates over the last couple of weeks, since the current COVID-19 outbreak began. Instead, they are being redirected to the Regina and Prince Albert Correctional Centres. 

According to the ministry, a number of precautions are being taken within the Saskatoon facility including mandating masks for inmates, ongoing testing, and isolating inmates who have symptoms.

It added that nurses are monitoring inmates who are infected with COVID-19 and has contracted additional health professionals to meet the mental and physical health needs of inmates.