SASKATOON -- Staff at Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert are still self-isolating while they’re not working as part of a public health order, according to a union representative.

Ryan DeBack, regional vice-president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said staff originally received the order on Dec. 22 and it’s been extended until Jan. 19. Some members haven’t seen their children in almost a month, he said.

“What happens inside the institution is not normal, we know that, and you use the community supports to help keep you balanced when you’re not there,” he said.

“The job is stressful enough to begin with, but add this extra bit in there and people are starting to crack.”

DeBack said staff at other institutions that have had outbreaks have not been subject to the same self-isolation order.

The union is asking the federal government for a pay increase to recognize the at-risk work of correctional officers throughout the pandemic.

“It’s not about the money. It’s about acknowledging there is a real sacrifice, there is a real cost to going into the institution and putting ourselves in harm’s way.”

As of Wednesday, Sask. Pen has 31 active COVID-19 cases among inmates and seven among staff. In total, 244 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. On Friday, a Sask. Pen inmate who tested positive for COVID-19 died in hospital.

DeBack said there’s no clear timeline on when prison staff will have access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Some federal inmates received their first doses last week.

“If they want to implement these types of orders on us, again, we understand. But at the same time then, we need to be prioritized as the first in line to get this vaccine.”

Kim Beaudin is a justice advocate, the national vice-chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and a former STR8 Up member, helping people transition away from gangs and criminal lifestyles.

Since the pandemic started in March, he’s been calling on provincial and federal governments to de-populate prisons by releasing non-violent offenders — Beaudin said this would reduce the chances of outbreaks among inmates and staff.

“If you’re a hardened criminal and you did horrific crimes to people, that’s where you should be. But if you’re struggling with addictions and you really didn’t do a whole lot of stuff other than that’s what you’re struggling with, and they keep throwing you in jail, why are they there?”

The pandemic has revealed systemic issues that have existed for decades, Beaudin said: “It really has shone a light on how badly this system is broken.”

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) said since March 2020, the federal custody population has declined by nearly 1,500 inmates. On average, 600 federal prisoners are released per month through parole, statutory release or expired sentences, it said.

“We remain in close contact with local public health authorities so we can stay up-to-date on emerging issues and responses,” said the CSC in an emailed statement.

“We will continue to work with our partners at Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), as well as engage with unions in taking the necessary steps to ensure everyone's safety.”

CSC said it continues to screen staff entering the facility, ensure all inmates and staff have medical masks and face shields, test frequently, disinfect regularly and isolate inmates who have tested positive in their cells.