Advocates are concerned for the health and mental well-being of inmates at a correctional facility 140 km north of Saskatoon that has more COVID-19 cases than any other federal prison and the highest test positive rate in the country.
The situation in the Saskatchewan Penitentiary located in Prince Albert is a major concern for Kim Beaudin due to an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak behind bars.
“It’s a real dire situation. I actually hear from somebody every day regarding the situation in the pen. The pandemic has really caused a lot of havoc, a lot of problems on them, the staff and families as well,” said Beaudin, national vice chief for the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP).
CAP is a national Indigenous political advocacy organization that has been vocal about the situation in prisons through the pandemic.
Beaudin says on a daily basis people call him, and one thing that really concerns him is that he’s heard some are confined to their cells 23.5 hours a day.
But Lee Ann Skene, deputy warden at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, says it’s the only way to stop the virus from spreading.
“Because of the environment that we have, offenders who have tested positive have been quarantined in their cells on their ranges. With that, we have limited the movement in an effort to reduce the transmission.”
Skene adds that things have been improving even though they currently have a COVID-19 outbreak and more cases than any other federal prison in Canada.
“Our latest numbers, as of today there are 215 inmates that have tested positive. The great news that I am happy to share – We’ve also had 141 inmate recoveries leaving us with 74 active cases.”
Skene also says inmates’ mental health is being addressed and that they have access to mental health staff, smudging and elders.
“Access to smudging continues to be available through our current COVID situation, as well as access to elders. We have limited the staff coming in and out of the institution to limit transmissions, however access to elders is available over the phone.”
Beaudin believes this situation and outbreak could have been avoided with early release for many inmates, an issue that has been raised multiple times since the pandemic hit.
Meanwhile, the man responsible for federal prisons, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair confirmed hundreds of inmates at those institutions will begin receiving vaccines starting on Friday.
The news drew concern from a union representing prison guards as well as criticism from the leader of the federal Conservatives Erin O’Toole, who tweeted out a CTV News article about the plan to immunize those on the inside.
“Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker,” O’Toole tweeted.
Blair responded at a news conference with reporters on Wednesday, saying that Ottawa is following public health advice and has a duty of care to federal inmates that can’t be ignored.
“The National Advisory Committee on Immunization was very clear in identifying people living in congregate-living situations, like a long-term care facility or like our federal institutions, and prioritized those individuals who were elderly, had pre-existing health conditions and therefore were particularly vulnerable,” he said.
It’s not all prisoners but only a small number of inmates that meet that high-risk criteria who will receive the vaccine early, the minister added.