B.C. jails to examine COVID-19 risks

B.C. jails will begin work today assessing risks of the spread of COVID-19 inside correctional facilities.

Stephanie Smith, president of the B.C. Government Employees Union — which represents 1,680 corrections workers in the province — said the risk assessment will be conducted by occupational health and safety teams in each institution, including representatives of union and management staff.

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Smith said on the agenda will be issues such as personal-protection gear for guards and civilian workers, and measures to carry out orders from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, such as maintaining safe distances and the installation of sanitizing stations.

“We get it — we recognize that jails are challenging environments,” said Smith. “You are balancing the safety of inmates and corrections officers and the administrative staff.

“An outbreak inside a jail could be catastrophic. So proactive measures are incredibly important.”

Smith said the union is pushing B.C. Corrections to develop “outbreak protocols” in the event COVID-19 gets inside an inmate population. “We’ve been pushing to see them try and come up with an outbreak protocol, which would deal with the worst-case scenario.”

The B.C. Ministry of Public Safety reported that, as of Tuesday, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in any of the 10 provincial jails. B.C. Corrections operates two jails on Vancouver Island: the Nanaimo Correctional Facility and the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Facility on Wilkinson Road.

B.C. Corrections has said it has taken steps to prevent the spread of the virus, including:

• Early releases of some non-violent offenders, including those sentenced to intermittent sentences.

• Taking temperatures and questioning all new inmates about symptoms. Anyone with symptoms is isolated for 14 days.

• Court appearances are now being conducted via video or telephone unless a judge directs otherwise.

• A ban on all in-person visits, except in exceptional circumstances, and an end to deliveries of all supplies not considered essential.

All prisoners inside provincial institutions are serving sentences of less than two years. Sentences of two years or more are served at federal prisons such as William Head Institution in Metchosin.

As of Wednesday, Corrections Canada had reported three positive cases of COVID-19 among inmates nationwide — two in Quebec, one in Ontario and none in B.C.

Federal prisons have also suspended all temporary inmate-release programs and all in-person visits.

Smith said her union wants to play its part to battle the spread of COVID-19.

“In times like this, we all have roles to play and that role is flattening the curve and preventing the spread of COVID-19,” she said.

“That means we work with the employer, but if they are slow coming out of the gate, then we have to push them to be a little bit faster.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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