THUNDER BAY - COVID-19 prevention measures lagged for weeks at the Thunder Bay District Jail, according to a local union representative and correctional officer.
“It’s been a fight with the employer to get proper protection for workers into place,” Bill Hayes, president of OPSEU Local 737 said on Thursday, April 23.
Hayes is president of the union representing all workers including nurses, correctional officers, cooks and support workers at the local jail on MacDougall Street.
Prevention measures to slow down and prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside the jail including wearing mandatory face masks were recently implemented, despite the Ministry of Solicitor General giving direction on these precautions weeks ago.
“Just yesterday (April 22) they finally implemented wearing surgical masks and made it mandatory so that was a big thing we have been asking for from day one,” Hayes said, who has also worked as a correctional officer for more than a decade.
Last week, the local jail implemented intake and isolation units as well as active temperature screening for staff to monitor their own health.
Intake units are designed for newly arrived inmates so they are not immediately placed with other inmates who have been there longer.
“It has just been high anxiety. Since this pandemic started everyone has been anxious and worried because we weren’t getting the answers right away from the employer due to the lack of preparedness,” Hayes said, adding things have just started to get better.
“It’s taken them until about now to really get their act together and implement these procedures we were asking for and the union has been fighting since day one and the biggest thing was wearing masks,” he said.
Several operational changes have come into effect at correctional centres across Ontario to limit the spread of COVID-19 including suspending all personal visits to all adult correctional facilities until further notice.
The city’s local district jail has often been referred to as an ancient facility by politicians and defence lawyers that has often faced severe overcrowding issues.
Through bail hearing releases, sentencings and the transfer of inmates to other institutions, the population has reduced from nearly 200 inmates to just under 100 in the last month, Hayes said.
Despite the decrease, physical distancing is still an issue.
“We don’t have the space to practice social distancing but with the numbers down we are able to make improvements to the jail to protect from COVID-19 in case we do get an outbreak,” Hayes said.
Shawn Bradshaw, president of the OPSEU Local 708 which represents workers at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre on Highway 61, describes a similar situation with prevention measures lagging to come into effect.
“Initially there was a lot of panic and a lot of concern from both staff and inmates but a lot of it is starting to subside as we get more information and safety protocols come into place,” Bradshaw said.
At the local jail, there have been a few instances where inmates have exhibited symptoms of COVID-19, all of which have come back negative, Hayes said.
“We had to basically isolate that inmate as well any inmates they have had contact with and they remain under isolation until the test comes back negative,” he said.
“Our management and staff here locally have done a tremendous job especially nursing staff as well as our frontline corrections in noticing these things and acting very quickly to stop it and prevent any possible spread,” Hayes said.
Both Bradshaw and Hayes agree things are finally coming into place despite the slow start.
“It evolves day by day,” Bradshaw said. “We can sit here and point fingers but its really not going to help anything it's just been a frustrating couple of weeks and moving forward we just want to keep those lines of communication open and work together, it’s been a bit of struggle.”
There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at either institution, according to a spokesperson with the Ministry of Solicitor General.