Mission Institution. Kevin Mills / Mission City Record.

Mission Institution. Kevin Mills / Mission City Record.

Mission Institution: Voices from inside Canada’s worst COVID-19 prison outbreak

Families speak out over conditions as class-action lawsuit filed against federal government

Joanne Fry last spoke to her son on Thursday, April 16 over the prison phone used by dozens of other convicts. He told her that he felt weak, his head was pounding, he was nauseous, he couldn’t eat – something was wrong, and he hadn’t seen a doctor.

Nathan, her son, set a fire that killed five people in 2008 and is serving a life sentence at Mission Institution, the site of Canada’s worst COVID-19 outbreak. There have been 108 inmates and 12 correctional officers infected; a prisoner died on April 15.

“My son never tells me these things, because he knows I worry,” Fry said. “Now my son isn’t calling … And I’m panicking.”

Fry is not alone. She formed the Mission Family Committee, a group of over 30 families looking to support each other and share information about their incarcerated loved ones during the pandemic.

“My intent at the time was to approach Mission Institution and say, ‘Look, let’s liaison here,’ rather than hundreds of us phoning and getting nowhere, hearing voice-mails and getting no response,” Fry said. “I’m getting [daily] phone calls and emails from hysterical family members… [They] are terrified.

“You can call [the prison] a hundred times and no one answers.”

The silence from Correctional Service Canada (CSC) endured long after her son’s phone call. Fry said she called CSC countless times a day, directly emailed the warden, the regional commissioner and even drove to the prison, pleading for information from the guards.

The only response she received was a promise that, “The doctor will call you back, or someone in administration.” But that didn’t happen.

A chaplain called her late on Sunday, April 19 to inform her that her son had been moved to Abbotsford Regional Hospital.

“Of course I melted down: ‘What’s happened? When did he go? Is he OK? Is it COVID-19?’ He had no further information,” she said. “This is absolutely inhumane, and no one should be treated this way.”

Kevin Mills / Mission City Record

Containment

Dr. Bonnie Henry’s COVID-19 update on Saturday, April 25 described health officials as “playing catchup.”

She said that after every inmate at the prison was tested, an additional 40 positive cases were identified, bringing the total number to 105 infections (minus the one death), out of the 289 inmates at the facility. Two are currently hospitalized and 38 have recovered from the virus.

“It’s a very difficult environment to effectively isolate people who are ill from others,” Henry said. “It has been a challenging process. I’m not going to sugar-coat it.”

Fraser Health has been conducting an investigation at the prison on how to best achieve containment measures.

CSC’s update from Sunday, April 26 said new health measures were put in place based on recent recommendations from experts.

Those measures include having a nurse and physician on site at all times, increasing the number of hand-washing stations at the facility, adding more hygiene supplies and continually disinfecting high-contact surfaces.

But families and prisoner-advocate groups say the main strategy – keeping inmates locked in their cells for 22 hours a day since the facility’s April 3 lockdown – has been detrimental to their mental health.

“Everyone in the institution is in solitary confinement, or they have very limited time out of their cells and no meaningful human contact during the day,” said Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. “This seems to be CSC’s only way of dealing with things – just violate everyone’s basic human rights on a vast scale.”

The use of solitary confinement has been equated with torture and cruel treatment by Canadian courts and the United Nations.

Last week, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the federal government on behalf of all the prisoners at Mission Institution. The lawsuit claims prisoners were symptomatic in mid-March, but that CSC failed to take adequate measures to protect their health. There has reportedly been at least one suicide attempt by an inmate.

Some are questioning whether the new health measures, along with the strategy of isolating inmates in their cells, can successfully contain the virus.

Metcalfe said her clients in the prison are reporting that health guidelines are not always followed by staff, personal protective equipment is not always available for prisoners and is reused, and showers and phones are not being disinfected between uses.

“Prisoners on regular units are only allowed out of their cells for maybe 20 minutes a day to do laundry and shower and make phone calls,” Metcalfe said. “And so there are some people who are COVID-19-positive on the units with people who are negative, [all] using the same facilities.”

The close environment of a prison makes a virus like COVID-19 extremely easy to spread, says Dr. John Farley, an infectious disease specialist under contract with CSC. He ran a monthly clinic at Mission Institution prior to the outbreak.

“The temperature, the moisture are characteristics that can make a virus sustain itself a bit longer. All of this is likely to be prevalent unless there is a rigorous attention and commitment to things, like meticulously cleaning an item after one person uses it,” Farley said. “We know that the virus is highly infectious and can contaminate many surfaces that we don’t even consider.

“Even us in the medical world, who are trained in infection control, we still have outbreaks.”

Because prisons were never constructed with physical distancing in mind, expecting to contain the virus within such facilities is “unrealistic,” Farley said.

“Especially in the older institutions, I think it’s very, very difficult, if not impossible, to effect the types of distancing that are required to prevent transmission,” he said. “They might be in their cells, but at some point they’re going to be in areas where it’s going to be impossible to implement … You might have 20 to 30 people sharing a phone, 20 to 30 people sharing a laundry facility.”

Kevin Mills / Mission City Record

Management’s slow reaction

Before the first two positive cases were announced by CSC on April 4, a correctional officer at Mission Institution told Black Press Media that prison management had “stuck their heads in the sand up to this point.”

That sentiment has been echoed by civil rights groups, the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers and the prisoners themselves.

The correctional officer said that officers had no personal protective equipment (PPE) and 50 to 100 prisoners had been eating in dining halls as if “nothing’s going on in the world.”

RELATED: Two inmates found positive for COVID-19 at Mission Institution; two other tests pending

“There was an inmate that went out to the hospital with escorting officers … When they got to the hospital, the doctor was flabbergasted and disgusted, because the inmate was coughing and the officers were provided with no PPE.”

Fry said that prior to the lockdown, family members had been consistently complaining to CSC about the health and safety regarding the pandemic.

“There was no hand cleaner, people were coming and going, and none of the stuff that the rest of world was doing was being enforced,” she said. “Nothing happened – no one gave a damn – so here we are.”

Carol Anne Leith was told by her son, David Poirier, who was convicted of murder in 2003 and has spent most of his 15 years inside Mission Institution, that officials from Ottawa visited the prison months ago to give guidelines to prevent the virus from reaching the prison.

“The kitchen wasn’t following through on any of those procedures right from the very beginning. So he refused to work,” Leith said. “The stewards were from outside, the volunteers were from outside … He was worried, saying that this was going to spread and cause trouble, and lo and behold, he was right.”

Metcalfe said her clients reported that an inmate was showing symptoms early on, and the case was “basically ignored” by the health-care staff and the warden.

“A few days later, people starting getting tested and the numbers started ballooning from there,” she said. “It had been business as usual for the first few weeks of the outbreak, so it’s not surprising that it spreads like wildfire in Mission.

“This crisis really illustrates the importance of having health care provided through public health authorities, where they won’t be influenced by correctional operations.”

Others have described symptomatic inmates being ignored. In the class-action lawsuit against the federal government, Todd Howelly, the inmate named as the lead plaintiff, claims he was told by health-care staff that he was merely suffering from allergies before he was eventually tested.

According to Fry, her son begged to see a doctor for days prior to his hospitalization. When he eventually saw an on-site nurse, he was told he was having an allergic reaction to his medication and he should stop taking it, according to Fry.

Correctional officers were apparently warning the prison’s management that certain inmates were showing symptoms of COVID-19 well before they confirmed the first case on April 1, according to Derek Chin, the union’s regional president of the Pacific region.

“I don’t think Mission’s management had a handle on when it began … [They] downplayed the officers’ concerns,” Chin said. “When they got the first inmate’s positive [test], they started contacting staff – three to four days later – to do tracing about who they could’ve been in contact with.”

The B.C. Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of 37 other organizations have sent a letter to B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth and chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, calling for a public inquiry into the death of the inmate and how CSC handled the outbreak.

“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 letter reads.

Kevin Mills / Mission City Record

Communication lacking

After a week of not knowing the condition of her son, Fry was able to briefly speak with Nathan over the phone on April 23.

“He was not well … When I talked with him, it was pretty scary,” she said. “My understanding at this time, is [staff] found him delirious and with very laboured breathing.”

After Nathan’s condition stabilized at the hospital, he was transferred to Abbotsford’s Regional Treatment Centre, according to Fry.

“He was ranting, panting. He is locked up for 24/7 with no books, TV, or any other diversion,” Fry said. “While he saw a nurse each day, he did not see a doctor or have his medications.”

After not responding to her queries for almost two weeks, CSC sent her an email on the morning of April 24.

“The Mission Institution switchboard was not operating correctly for a period of time during the week of April 13,” the email says. “We sincerely regret the stress and worry this has caused.”

Chin said the local union has had problems getting proper direction from Mission Institution’s management. He said correctional officers on the frontline were not consulted in the pre-planning around routine and health and safety protocols.

“The biggest issue, the biggest barrier is communication… A lot of this could have been prevented,” he said. “Labour management was already pretty bad over at Mission to begin with.”

Correctional officers allegedly found out about the first positive case from their peers, instead of being informed immediately by management, according to a correctional officer who spoke anonymously with The News on April 4.

At the beginning of the outbreak, the facility was down to just under 60 staff due to the exposures, according to Chin. He said a member of the local management team was attempting to get officers to leave isolation early to come back to work in order to get the inmate routine back to normal, which would be premature and dangerous.

“A couple of guys they were trying to call back … they found out they were positive a couple days later,” he said. “There is a lot of mistrust on both sides.”

The lack of information coming out of the prison prompted local MPs from Abbotsford and Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon to release a statement on April 16.

“Pro-active communication to our community from CSC has been and continues to be absent,” MPs Brad Vis and Ed Fast wrote. “The public is understandably concerned about measures being taken to arrest the spread of the virus within the prison population, amongst frontline correctional officers, and in the wider community.”

RELATED: Federal handling of COVID-19 outbreak at Mission Institution criticized by local MPs, advocates

Families plead for action

Although many of the inmates deserve to be in prison, many have tried hard to improve themselves in hopes of reintegrating into society one day, said Leith.

“[David] is not the way he used to be,” she said. “As a parent, as a mother, I’m not denying what he did. I’ll never make excuses for that … but he has grown from it, and he done a lot of work to change.”

Leith says that David is prisoner representative for his cell unit, and meets with the warden and others in administration once a month to communicate the inmates’ concerns around the prison.

She said the way the prison’s outbreak has been handled by CSC has increased tensions at the facility.

“The spark is there for a really violent outburst,” Leith said. “There are several [prisoners] in there trying to keep everybody positive and calm so that there isn’t a riot, because that will just turn everything around and blame it all on the inmates.”

Another family member said that stress among prisoners is evident when talking over the prison phone.

“They feel like they’re forgotten about. A lot of the guys are just screaming and screaming, so the tensions are high. A lot of times on the phone you can barely hear, because everyone is screaming in the background,” the family member said. “You have officers who are very stressed out, and you’re putting them in with all the inmates who are stressed out – it’s not a good combination.”

Many family members are angry, but many more are frightened to say something for fear of retribution on their loved ones, according to Leith.

“The punishment for their crimes was their sentence,” she said. “This time we have to speak out.”


@portmoodypigeon
patrick.penner@abbynews.com

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