Correctional officers in the Saskatchewan Penitentiary are being accused by inmates of not wearing masks or gloves while working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I hear the same thing all the time. No masks being worn. No gloves,” said Sherri Maier, a prisoner advocate who operates Beyond Prison Walls Canada, on Nation to Nation Thursday.
“Saskatchewan Penitentiary is one of the worst. (Inmates) are telling me the guards are just holding their masks in their hands. Why hold this in your hand? Just put on your face mask.”
She’s been hearing more than that from inmates at Sask Pen and put it all in a letter Monday to the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI), otherwise known as the country’s prison watchdog.
The office confirmed Thursday to Nation to Nation it’s investigating Maier’s complaints and said nearly a third of the 435 complaints its received since March 16 are related to COVID-19.
Maier shared her complaint letter with Nation to Nation.
“Saskatchewan Penitentiary has become a great concern for me as I have prisoners and their family messaging and calling me about what is going on there and its appalling,” Maier wrote. “For close to a month Sask pen [maximum security] has been pretty much confined to their cells for 20 hours a day. They are limited to 15 minute phone call. This is ridiculous and the only institution that I’m aware of doing this with no real purpose.”
Maier went on to explain that the medium security section of the institution has been following the same lock-down schedule for about three weeks according to what inmates have told her.
The federal institution, located in Prince Albert 140 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, has room for 176 maximum, 457 medium and 176 minimum security prisoners according to the Correctional Service of Canada website.
Sask Pen has no confirmed cases of the virus. Five inmates were tested for COVID-19 in medium security.
Across all institutions there 145 confirmed cases, including one death that was announced Thursday afternoon. The inmate died at the Mission Institution in Abbortsford, B.C., where there are 54 confirmed cases.
Back in Saskatchewan, Maier alleged there was a scuffle between inmates and correctional officers when an unknown amount of inmates refused to go in their cells about a couple weeks ago.
“Canteen is another issue. They were told that there a shortage so canteen is now put into pre made packages. They have no choice. It’s ridiculous. For $25 they get 2 boxes KD, 10 pks noodles, 15 pkgs soya sauce and few other things. Then they have a snack bag. There is no choice what they get. This is unnecessary but were told its because there is a shortage,” her letter continued.
Canteen is where inmates can purchase food and other small items.
“Why should their canteen be effected? They get stamps and envelope in canteen. Now they need put in a special request for them. It’s as though they are being isolated from everything during this crisis which is not right,” Maier said.
“The prisoners are outraged and as such they should be. It’s time that you look into this before situation gets worse and it could very soon.”
Maier wrote the letter because her social media posts on Twitter were noticed by Emad Talisman, a policy analyst with the OCI.
this is beyond troubling. I’ll make sure these issues are raised with the investigator assigned to Sask Pen, but please do continue to write the Office. Sources and substantiating evidence always help move things along.
— Emad Talisman (@PapaTalisman) April 11, 2020
Detailed questions were put to Correctional Service of Canada but it has yet to respond, other than to say someone was working on it.
Nation to Nation spoke again with Valerie Gideon, senior assistant deputy minister with Indigenous Services Canada, and Dr. Tom Wong, the top doctor at ISC, about the latest happening in response to the pandemic.
See all the interviews below.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said there we’re five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in medium security of Saskatchewan Penitentiary, but five have only been tested for the virus. There are no confirmed cases in the institution. Nation to Nation apologizes for this error.