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Safety concerns persist as COVID-19 outbreak at Maple Ridge jail spreads

Last Updated Feb 1, 2021 at 1:35 am PDT

(Courtesy gov.bc.ca)

As of Saturday, 11 of the 14 inmates on the affected unit had tested positive along with two staff members

Workers refused work due to unsafe conditions before an outbreak was declared, union says safety concerns remain

A family member of someone in the jail shares workers' concerns that infected inmates were not isolated

MAPLE RIDGE (NEWS 1130) — In the week since officers at a Maple Ridge jail refused work due to unsafe conditions, an outbreak has been declared and the number of COVID-19 cases connected to the facility has doubled.

As of Saturday, 11 of the 14 inmates on the affected unit at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre had tested positive. Two staff members have also contracted the virus, according to the health authority.

Six inmates were infected on Jan. 22 and 23, when members of the BCGEU “refused to work in a living unit where confirmed COVID-19 positive inmates were being housed with inmates who had tested COVID-19 negative,” according to a statement posted to the union’s website which says another living unit was available at the time.

The work refusal triggered a WorkSafe inspection into five separate grounds for concern, but ultimately found there was no “undue hazard.” That is defined as “a thing or condition that may expose a worker to an excessive or unwarranted risk of injury or occupational disease.” The report concluded that no undue hazard was present because there had not been an “increase in incidents between inmates.”

Addressing the issue of isolating inmates, the inspection report said Fraser Health advised against it.

“The employer representative stated that the decision to keep the cohort together and not separate is based on discussion with Fraser Health Authority (FHA) medical doctors,” the report reads. “The advice from the public health medical doctor indicated that the cohort of inmates should be kept together to prevent potential spreading of the disease to other wards.”

The union responded to the inspection by again raising the issue of isolating inmates who have tested positive from those who have not.

“It is the BCGEU’s position that the employer, in this case, could be doing more to be proactive in protecting the safety of our members. The obvious step of isolating COVID-19 inmates from other inmates and COs to the extent possible was overlooked, and the opportunity to correct the problem was missed by WorkSafeBC,” the statement reads.

“Isolating positive tested inmates must be the priority to contain and prevent a large scale outbreak.”

An outbreak was officially declared by Fraser Health the day after that statement was posted.

RELATED: COVID-19 infects 58 people in Metro Vancouver jails, vaccine plan unclear

Union President Stephanie Smith, when speaking to NEWS 1130 Sunday, said she remains concerned for her members.

“Jails are congregate living environments and they’re at high risk of spread of infection, not dissimilar to long term care. Our position is — overreact to this. If there is a single positive case, do absolutely everything within your power to make sure that that doesn’t spread any further. The isolation, the intermingling is a large concern for us,” she explained.

“Our position is that employers need to overreact, not just provide the minimum standards of safety. That means when an inmate is diagnosed positive, mitigating the spread, whether that’s through isolation or other means.”

Smith says the union will continue to press Corrections BC to address the issues raised by the employees who refused work last week.

“This is never a decision that workers make easily. Corrections officers they do risk assessments in their job every day, they’re very very good at it, and so for them to say, ‘The conditions that I am being asked to work in right now are not safe for me.’ That’s a pretty alarming call,” she notes.

‘If they don’t have it, they’re probably going to get it’: family member

A NEWS 1130 listener with a family member on the affected unit at the jail says it has been stressful knowing that the inmates who have tested positive were not moved when the first cases were identified.

“I’m kind of upset that it took this long for them to label it an outbreak. They all share the same areas so if they don’t have it, they’re going to probably get it,” says the person who wants to remain anonymous in order not to identify their family member.

“I think they rotate when they’re allowed out, but they all share the same common area, they share the phone. I don’t understand why they’re not separated. I think there should be some sort of other protocol put in place. It’s a pandemic, it’s not just a flu.”

In a statement Friday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addressed ongoing outbreaks at three of the province’s jails.

“There was no need to conduct mass testing at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, where the positive cases are limited to one living unit. Those affected units are operating with limited movement and the individuals in those units are restricted to those units and are not being transported to attend court appearances,” she wrote.

But limiting movement means, according to the anonymous listener, that everyone on the unit is increasingly confined to their cells. For two days after the first cases were identified, they say they did not hear from their family member for two days due to a lockdown. There will be no access to programming, no outgoing mail, and limited phone contact until the outbreak is declared over.

“I understand people think, ‘Okay, you’re in jail it’s your fault.’ But people in there they’re trying, they’re trying to rehabilitate. They’re in jail, that’s the punishment. They’re already away from everybody, it doesn’t need to be worse,” they say.

“Once in prison, the duty of the province and the government is to rehabilitate inmates and prepare them for reintegration back into society. It’s not to permanently psychologically damage them or to potentially put their lives at risk.”

News of the correctional officers’ work refusal added to the listener’s frustration.

“That makes me really angry because it’s them who brought it in in the first place. The inmates can’t leave, they can’t go anywhere,” she says.

The statement from Henry attributes the outbreaks in B.C. jails to increased community transmission.

“BC Corrections’ protocols have been effective in mitigating the spread of the virus from the community into the correctional centres since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. The recent outbreaks are a reflection of the activity in the broader community,” it reads.

RELATED: ‘Potentially very deadly’: Advocates call for release of vulnerable women from Canada’s prisons amid COVID-19

Henry also said Friday that facilities with active outbreaks will be prioritized during this phase of the vaccine rollout.

Neither the union nor the listener has heard details about when vaccinations will be done at Fraser Regional, but the prospect is a welcome one.

“That would be good news for us. We do know that the vaccine rollout plan had room in it to deal with places where outbreaks are occurring, and certainly within correctional facilities we’re seeing that. And so, we would hope that they would be prioritized,” Smith said.

The Surrey Pretrial Services Centre and the North Fraser Pretrial Centre are also dealing with active outbreaks. As of Saturday there were 39 inmates and one worker with COVID-19 in Surrey, and 21 inmates and four workers infected at North Fraser.