THUNDER BAY -- There are still no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the city jail but the Ministry of the Solicitor General says they are keeping a close eye on the situation.
For the last three weeks, the Ontario government has made several operational changes at provincial correctional centres to prevent the spread of the highly infectious respiratory illness. Some of those changes have included restricting personal visitors, reducing in-person court appearances for inmates and reducing the inmate population, according to Kristy Denette, a spokesperson with the ministry.
“Each institution, including Thunder Bay Jail, has an individualized pandemic plan utilized in consultation with local public health partners,” she said in an emailed statement. “We continue to monitor this situation and work closely with public health partners as this situation evolves.
An overcrowding crisis has been well recognized at the city’s local jail with up to four inmates at times in a cell built for two individuals. The Thunder Bay District Jail, often referred to as an ancient facility by lawyers, is designed to accommodate 147 inmates. The overcrowding crisis along with heightened health risks for inmates has also impacted local judges and justices of the peace as they impose sentences for individuals.
On March 20, the ministry announced they are using longer-term temporary absences to allow the early release of inmates that are near the end of their sentence. The ministry has also given temporary absence passes to intermittent offenders who would normally spend weekends in custody.
Since March 16, these measures have reduced the population at all facilities across Ontario from 8,344 to 6,096. At the Thunder Bay Jail, this has reduced the inmate population from 181 to 142.
Inmates are carefully assessed to ensure they are at a low risk to re-offend, Denette said. Inmates that have been convicted of serious, violent crimes or crimes involving guns, are not considered for early release.
Since April 2, nine low-risk offenders close to the end of their sentence have been released from custody under a temporary absence pass. Which includes five inmates from the Central North Correctional Centre, two inmates from the Central East Correction Centre, one inmate from the Kenora Jail and one inmate from the Niagara Detention Centre.
“We are also working with the courts and police to reduce the number of individuals coming into custody while ensuring public safety is not compromised,” Denette said.
Staff at provincial correctional facilities are also required to perform self-assessment prior to entering the institution and are advised to monitor their own health.
“Staff at all of our correctional facilities including Thunder Bay Jail have access to personal protective equipment as required,” Denette said.
Cleaning measures have also stepped up daily with third-party cleaning services performing additional deep cleaning as required. Inmates have also been educated on methods to reduce the spread of illness including providing cleaning products to keep their living areas clean, proper handwashing as well as coughing and sneezing etiquette.
“Those being admitted to provincial facilities are subject to screening procedures for respiratory illness that align with the guidance from the chief medical officer of health,” she said, adding inmates are also being medically assessed at admission.
“Our priority remains the health and well-being of our staff and those in our custody,” Denette said.