Two Saskatoon correctional officers have tested positive for COVID-19 and this raises serious concerns about the safety of staff working in the justice system, said Bob Bymoen, Saskatchewan Government Employees Union president on March 27.
Overcrowding in correctional facilities and close confinement are leading to specific challenges for corrections workers during the pandemic.
“We have been asking the government for a plan for our corrections officers since the pandemic first broke,” said Bymoen.
“These people are working under the toughest circumstances and are worried,” he added. “We have repeatedly raised the alarm about their safety. Now overcrowding and lack of proper safety equipment means that they are also facing the threat of a serious COVID-19 outbreak.”
Last week CUPE, the union that represents Saskatchewan’s legal aid lawyers, called on the federal and provincial governments to release non-violent inmates from prison and jail to help slow the spread of COVID-19. On March 26 the Battlefords Regional News Optimist, during a media scrum, asked Saskatchewan Justice Minister Don Morgan if this is something the province is considering. But Morgan said the jails weren’t operating “at capacity” and that the province didn’t have any plans for early release. He said they had means within the jail facilities to move inmates to other facilities.
Meara Conway, president of CUPE, said overcrowded facilities housing vulnerable populations are a potential public health risk.
“An outbreak in any of Saskatchewan’s jails could strain nearby health care systems, and threaten the wellbeing of inmates, staff, and nearby communities,” she said last week.
The union wants the federal and provincial government to release non-violent inmates considered at low risk to re-offend, and especially those who are elderly and/or have medical conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.
Byemoen said the current pandemic demonstrates the vulnerability of their correctional centres to disease outbreaks and called for immediate action. He said the government needs to increase testing of inmates, corrections staff and deputy sheriffs. He also said there needs to be immediate provision of essential supplies for staff and courts such as masks and gloves.
“Once we’re through this emergency things cannot go back to business as usual,” he said. “Long term changes to be made.”