VANCOUVER—Something troubled Dr. John Farley as he was doing his usual rounds at B.C.’s federal prisons earlier this spring.
As an infectious disease consultant for the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) for the past 20 years, Farley spends part of his week driving to different prisons in his GMC pickup to treat inmates who have HIV or hepatitis.
In mid-March, as COVID-19 fears ramped up and officials urged social distancing, Farley noticed that some prisons he visited still lacked basic screening procedures — and even hand sanitizers — at their entrances. Some prison nurses, he said, complained they weren’t getting a lot of guidance and had to search for information online.
Looking back, Farley said he believed it was a matter of time before an institution saw its first case.
“It was clear to me … that this was a disaster waiting to happen,” he told the Star.
Sure enough, days later, Farley was told his scheduled visit at Mission Institution’s 300-inmate medium-security prison had been cancelled. He learned some inmates there had developed symptoms and were awaiting results from swab tests.
By then Farley had started contacting his colleagues in corrections, urging them to create a committee of experts and specialists to develop a strategy for preventing the spread of the virus within the prison system.
He took the position that instead of focusing on containment and waiting for symptoms to show up, CSC needed to adopt an aggressive strategy of testing and contact tracing. However, Farley said he soon found himself relegated to the sidelines.
“If I may cut to the chase — fast forward to where we are now — I think that was partly the Achilles heel of why we are where we are,” he said, referring to a lack of screening and testing.
Within weeks, the Mission Institution, located about 80 kilometres east of Vancouver in Mission, B.C., became the site of the largest coronavirus outbreak among all Canada’s federal prisons.
The number of confirmed cases at the facility has climbed to 134, with 121 inmates and 13 staff testing positive. One inmate in his 70s, Paul Felker, who had been serving a life sentence for the murder of a young Indigenous woman, died last month.
Farley is among a growing number of community members — including prison staff, legal advocates, relatives of inmates and union representatives — who are asking why mitigation measures weren’t implemented sooner.
Mission Institution descended into “absolute chaos” after going into lockdown, prison insiders told the Star. Frontline workers tussled with management over access to protective equipment, while inmates screamed and banged on their metal doors.
Lawyers recently filed a proposed class-action lawsuit alleging prison officials failed to protect inmates and deprived them of their liberty by holding them in conditions “akin to solitary confinement.”
“Failure to mitigate the risks early on resulted in a situation where we have effectively got half of inmates … that have tested positive,” said an employee with knowledge of the prison’s occupational health and safety practices and who requested anonymity.
“If those numbers appeared in other settings, people would be screaming bloody murder.”
Surrounded by forest and mountains, the medium-security portion of Mission Institution features five units built in the 1970s, each housing about 40 inmates, plus a newer 96-bed unit. Each inmate has his own cell.
A minimum-security prison operates next door.
According to a report from Canada’s correctional investigator last year, nearly half of Mission Institution inmates were 50 to 64 years old and 12 per cent were 65 and older.
On March 14, just days after the World Health Organization had declared a pandemic, CSC announced it was suspending all inmate visits across the country.
But this was not enough, Farley said.
“We have an opportunity to be proactive; we have some lead-time before the virus gets into our prison community (hopefully it doesn’t but that is wishful thinking),” he wrote in a March 23 email to corrections colleagues.
Around that time, Stan Stapleton, national president of the Union of Safety and Justice Employees, which represents maintenance, clerical, support and other nonuniformed prison staff, sent a letter to Anne Kelly, the CSC commissioner in Ottawa, imploring her not to treat the emerging health crisis as “business as usual.”
Mission Institution managers pushed to continue some programs, such as academic classes and vocational training, because they wanted to keep inmates occupied, prison insiders say. But by the end of March, programs were scaled back and staff sent home. Inmates, however, were still able to use common areas, such as the dining hall and the recreation yard, a grassy area the size of a soccer field.
“So it was, in essence, the worst of both worlds — prisoners were grouped in a confined, contagious space before being let out to infect others,” said Simon Cheung, a legal advocate with Prisoners’ Legal Services in Burnaby, B.C., a legal aid clinic that has been corresponding with many Mission Institution inmates during the outbreak.
At the start of April, even with physical distancing rules in place, the situation was becoming increasingly untenable in the eyes of staff.
About a dozen inmates in three out of the six units at Mission Institution were displaying symptoms of COVID-19. Managers wanted to allow inmates in the remaining three units to keep some freedom of movement, but guards worried this would lead to more potential exposures, said a correctional officer who requested anonymity.
On the evening of April 3, corrections staff told managers they were invoking Section 128 of the Canada Labour Code, which says an employee may refuse to work if they believe a danger exists in the workplace.
“A 128 is, ‘We don’t have time to figure this out, we need to isolate and control, lock everything down until we can come up with some sort of resolution,’ ” the correctional officer said.
After a tense meeting between management and staff that night, managers agreed to a prison-wide lockdown, the officer said. This meant inmates were relegated to their cells and food would be delivered to them.
That same evening, an assistant warden was notified by the health unit that the first positive test result came back for an inmate who had a work assignment in the kitchen.
The following day, when CSC employees who work in the kitchen showed up, they were sent home and told to self-quarantine out of concern they had come into contact with the infected inmate.
While staff scrambled to get backup from other institutions, managers picked up 300 hash browns and 300 McMuffins from McDonald’s for the inmates.
For a time, prison insiders said, some inmates who showed symptoms were shepherded to a different section of the facility. But as cases ballooned, it became impossible to keep them separated from the rest of the population.
“You can see how fast our numbers exploded,” the correctional officer said.
Meanwhile, the debate roiling in society over the necessity of masks was also taking place within prison walls.
When some staff brought their own masks to work, they say they were prevented from wearing them. Staff reported management was worried the masks could scare inmates, said Derek Chin, regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.
“That was the mentality. If anything, that’s the more proactive approach,” he said.
But once lockdown began, new protocols were introduced. Officers in all units would wear surgical masks while performing their duties. Any staff member interacting with an inmate who showed symptoms or tested positive was required to wear a mask, gloves, goggles and a gown.
The mood inside the prison grew tense.
“We have to put our chairs in front of our doors if we want meals and stand at the back of our cells when the door is open,” one inmate wrote in a letter mailed to a friend, who shared it with the Star.
“Isolation and locked up in cells with no answer or reassurance is anxiety provoking. I feel like I’m waiting for a bullet that’s invisible.”
He added staff were walking around in protective gear “which adds to the stress and feeling doomed all at the same time.”
The correctional officer said the inmates were becoming hostile.
“They’re screaming, they’re yelling, they’re banging doors, they’re covering windows.”
On top of that, many correctional officers went into quarantine, concerned they had come into contact with inmates who had tested positive.
“There’d be some days you come into work and there were six officers to run the entire jail” when there might normally be 20, the correctional officer said.
The supply of personal protective equipment also remained a persistent problem.
On April 13, with the number of infected inmates at 41, the union representing correctional officers called on CSC in a press release to make sure all inmates and staff had masks. They also said the movement of staff between institutions should end.
Others had raised the same concern.
One nurse emailed Farley noting that staff at long-term-care facilities were no longer allowed to work at multiple sites to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Yet staff at Mission Institution were still going back and forth between the minimum and medium security sides.
“Myself and some others feel — even with PPE (which is of unknown quantity) — this is too great of risk to our populations,” the nurse wrote.
‘Getting no information’
It was also an anxious time for relatives of inmates.
Joanne Fry, whose son is serving a life sentence for setting a fire that killed five people, created a private online forum so parents of inmates could support one another and stay updated.
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“I started getting various family members calling me crying and in hysteria, ‘No one will answer, no will talk to me, I’m getting no information,’ so my initial goal was to start up this association … to be a support system,” she said.
In mid-April, Fry emailed Shawn Huish, the warden of Mission Institution.
“As none of our families are able to receive information via the telephone and most messages are not returned, we ask if one of the staff would be prepared to communicate with us in order to relieve our stress and anxiety,” she wrote.
She said she never got a response.
Fry went into a panic herself when a prison chaplain called her one day to say her son had been taken to hospital, but provided no other information.
After she couldn’t get through to anyone at the prison, she drove 40 minutes to the facility and had a “melt down” at the front counter.
“I screamed, cried, begged, ‘Just look on the computer. Just let me talk to health care, just tell me something. Is my son OK?’ ”
The next morning, she learned her son didn’t have COVID-19.
Beginning the second week of April, inmates were given 20 minutes each day to get out of their cells to make phone calls, take showers or do laundry.
But on April 16, the warden told inmates there might be times when this wasn’t possible, as staff are required to respond to incidents and emergencies.
“If time does not permit an entire unit to receive all opportunities, the remaining will be first to receive them the following day.”
One inmate expressed his frustration in a letter to his wife, who shared it with the Star.
“The way things are going they might as well just let everyone get it and be over with it. I’m so f—— tired of being locked up in my cell … They have only been giving us five minutes to shower so I have had to sacrifice showering so I can call you.”
According to the class-action lawsuit, one inmate attempted suicide during the lockdown.
Corrections officials said in an April 25 press release that every effort was being made to safely give inmates time outside their cells.
Just this week insiders said the prison began to let inmates out into the yard in small groups for 45-minutes of exercise.
‘We don’t have crystal balls’
By the end of April, CSC officials reported that all Mission Institution inmates had been tested for COVID-19. The agency also said additional handwashing stations and hygiene supplies had been delivered and common surfaces were being disinfected several times a day. Inmates and staff were also given masks to wear.
But the correctional officer said disinfecting the facility had proved challenging.
A 14-person cleaning crew was brought in mid-April. But there was a language barrier and it was evident that the crew — some of whom wore boots with price tags on them — were not familiar with cleaning products, the correctional officer said.
Another cleaning crew came in a few days later with a disinfectant fogging machine that triggered respiratory problems for some inmates.
This incident is mentioned in the lawsuit.
“On or about April 20, 2020, CSC brought in a ‘haz-mat’ team to decontaminate Mission Institution,” the claim reads. “However, the Plaintiff and Class were not removed from their cells and were thereby exposed to harsh chemicals.”
The case has not been certified as a class action lawsuit and its claims have not been tested in court.
As of Thursday, CSC had not filed a response.
The Star repeatedly asked to speak with CSC officials this week and sent the agency a list of questions. A spokesperson said they were unable to respond because of the ongoing litigation.
A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said in an email Friday that a mobile medical unit had been set up at a nearby hospital to support inmates at Mission Institution and that 100 of the 120 inmates who tested positive have since recovered.
“We know that the efforts we have taken so far are working.”
Industry observers wonder if some of the problems at Mission Institution could have been avoided if CSC had taken some creative steps sooner, including clearing out low-risk inmates, such as those who are elderly or in poor health.
Prisons are known “breeding grounds” for disease, said Mary Campbell, a retired Public Safety Canada director general in the corrections and criminal justice branch.
“Get them out now.”
Instead, CSC’s strategy was to pull up the draw bridge and hunker down, she said.
“Boy, you’d have to have a lot of luck on your side with that strategy.”
But the Mission Institution correctional officer said such an approach is not realistic. Halfway houses aren’t accepting anyone right now. Plus, it would put unfair pressure on parole officers to carry out all those assessments.
“I get the bleeding hearts out there who say ‘Release him, he’s low risk.’ But what if? What if we don’t have safeguards in place and that person goes out and they rape somebody’s child or they kill somebody?” the officer said.
“We don’t have crystal balls.”
Nevertheless, advocacy groups have issued calls for a public inquest into the inmate who died during the lockdown.
“The public needs to know what happened at Mission Institution and how the incarcerated person who died was treated; a confidential investigation would not suffice,” the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said in a press release.
Farley, the infectious disease consultant, maintains the lack of aggressive testing and screening at the outset of the pandemic meant the prison was always playing catch-up with the disease.
“It need not have been the epicentre if we had dealt with it appropriately initially.”
The Mission Institution employee with knowledge of occupational health and safety practices said the prison’s managers shouldn’t shoulder all the blame — in some cases they were just following orders from above, while also dealing with conflicting information between different health authorities.
However, the employee said there were mitigation measures they could’ve taken sooner, such as reducing the number of people going to and from the prison and not waiting for “full-blown symptoms” before testing.
“We had a perfect storm of not being able to access sufficient quantities of PPE, not being able to test broadly enough in the early stages,” the employee said.
“Let’s learn our lessons and be ready for the next wave.”
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