London, Ont., jail poorly prepared for potential COVID-19 outbreak: inmate lawyer, employee rep

A London, Ont., jail, described by the province’s human rights commissioner as “overcrowded, unsanitary and dangerous” in 2019, is now facing accusations it is ill-prepared for any potential outbreak of the novel coronavirus within its grounds.

The Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) is currently conducting “passive screening” of those entering the facility, according to correctional officer Chris Jackel, who is also co-chair of the OPSEU corrections division’s management-employee relations committee (MERC).

“There’s some signage posted at the entrance, and individuals are sort of required to read the sign. There’s a few questions on there on whether or not they have a headache or felt feverish or travelled out of the country, and if they answer ‘yes’ then they are to take some certain steps,” he told Global News.

“We don’t feel this is sufficient.”

Jackel would like to see “active screening” involving “someone qualified to meet staff and non-staff members at the door” to take temperatures and ask more pointed questions.

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Jackel says MERC has been in discussion with the employer and is moving toward taking additional precautions. But he worries concrete action is coming too slowly and adds that the jail should have developed plans before they were needed.

“One of my counterparts makes the claim that it’s like we’re trying to build the plane as we’re flying,” he said.

“We advocated for these discussions a long time ago. Unfortunately, some of those [weren’t heard] until we’re in this situation now. We do have some plans in place, and others remain a work in progress.”

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A statement emailed to Global News Radio 980 CFPL from the Ministry of the Solicitor General said each institution in Ontario “has an individualized pandemic plan utilized in consultation with local public health partners.” The statement added that if an outbreak of any communicable disease is confirmed or suspected, “institution officials take immediate precautionary containment measures.”

The statement notes staff are required to perform a “self-assessment” before entering the institution and “have access to personal protection equipment as required.”

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“There are also processes in place to address environment cleaning,” the statement said.

“Our correctional facilities are inspected and thoroughly cleaned daily and/or as required. In addition, third-party cleaning services perform additional deep cleaning in our institutions as required. Inmates are educated on methods to reduce the spread of illness, including COVID-19, and are provided cleaning products to keep their living areas clean. Proper handwashing and cough/sneezing etiquette has also been communicated to staff and inmates.”

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Lawyer Kevin Egan, who represents EMDC inmates involved in a lawsuit about conditions at the jail, says he’s not surprised by correctional officers’ concerns about COVID-19.

“It’s not the safest job on the planet to begin with, and when you throw in that added concern about working in close quarters and having colleagues going out in the community and coming back in unchecked, I would be concerned if I were working there,” he said.

Egan adds that conditions in the jail would likely amplify the severity of any outbreak. He compared the conditions to those within long-term care homes, which have been connected to several outbreaks across Canada.

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“Think of a nursing home with a seven-foot-wide room that has two or more people sleeping in it and locked in it all day long. That’s what was happening there. It’s even more closed quarters than in a nursing home,” he said.

“It’s such a closed community that once someone (with COVID-19) gets in there, everyone else is in peril.”

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The Ministry of the Solicitor General says operational changes have been made to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at its adult provincial correctional institutions, including “restricting personal visitors, substantially reducing inmate in-person court appearances and proactively reducing the inmate population.”

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“The ministry is currently in the process of implementing the announcement made on March 20th by proactively performing a review for all inmates to determine eligibility for early release. Our goal is to lower the number of inmates in custody while preserving public safety. Inmates chosen must be near the end of their sentences, be considered a low risk to reoffend and not convicted of serious crimes,” the statement read.

Egan noted EMDC “reduced the population by about 60 late last week” but says that’s not enough.

“That still leaves the institution at more than double its original capacity. An institution built for 150 is now housing about 320 inmates.”

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