A former inmate at Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC) is speaking out after another offender tested positive for COVID-19 at the prison.
Kimberley Daley, who was recently released from OCC, claims a lack of sanitation and overall education concerning novel coronavirus contradicts statements released by the ministry of public safety and solicitor general.
On April 2, a male inmate at Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC) tested positive for COVID-19, marking the first outbreak at a corrections facility in B.C.
The same week, Daley, 54, was released while serving a three-month sentence in the female unit for possession of stolen property.
On April 3, Interior Health announced it was looking for any individuals who may have had contact with the inmate who tested positive for COVID-19 in the men’s unit at the multi-level prison. Interior Health’s medical health officer also announced they were confident that the risk of exposure to the general public was low.
The health authority said at the time that prisoners who may have been exposed are all being monitored, and that there were currently no signs of illness beyond the first patient.
But according to Daley, for those inside the prison there was next to no communication about the outbreak within the female unit.
Daley said she found out about the positive test in the men’s unit during a video court appearance.
“I went back up and told them there’s a case there, we didn’t even know. I heard that from the judge.
“We’re asking and begging for somebody to come and talk to us, so we’re not so scared.”
In an exclusive interview with the Penticton Western News, she claimed several cleaning protocols are being missed or overlooked at OCC.
The OCC is a multi-level centre, accommodating a wide range of populations: sentenced and remand; male and female; open custody to maximum security with a range of criminal histories, conditions and incompatibilities. At 861 beds and at a construction cost of $137 million, OCC is the largest facility in the province and the most technologically advanced.
Steps taken to to prevent outbreak; inmates released
According to BC Corrections, every inmate going into a facility is first assessed, interviewed, has their temperature checked, and those with symptoms are isolated. Those already in custody who shows signs of illness will be treated ‘in ways that limit exposure to others.’
BC Corrections also said that its centres have space to support physical distancing. Signs and verbal reminders from staff supplement written materials inmates have received about distancing, frequent handwashing and not sharing food or utensils. Corrections officers have been told to encourage inmates to eat in their cells.
The B.C. government has allowed the early release of nearly 100 inmates of roughly 1,800 from nine of its provincial jails since March 1 in its latest steps to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 within its facilities.
A majority of those released were serving intermittent sentences for their offences, such as weekends only. As of April 2, 1,805 people were being housed in B.C. jails. Of those locked up, 617 were serving their sentences while 1,138 were awaiting court hearings. A further 50 were being held due to immigration matters.
As of April 2 there were 265 individuals incarcerated at OCC, 91 of those sentenced, but since then four inmates have been granted early release due to the virus.
Advocates have been calling for early releases of non-violent offenders in provincial and federal prisons to prevent further spread of the virus.
Former inmate speaks out
Daley said she’s speaking out to help those still incarcerated.
The former inmate claimed there is a general lack of sanitation at OCC, including broken or unfilled hand sanitizer stations. Hand wipes are for corrections staff use only, she said.
In addition to a lack of social distancing due to frisking, she also maintained there is a lack of education regarding the proper use of COVID-19 sanitation products provided.
BC Corrections explained in a news release earlier this month that several new protocols have been put in place since COVID-19 touched down in the province. Those measures include mandatory handwashing and cleaning procedures for all staff, essential contractors, and at intake for people coming into custody.
But guards and inmates don’t know how to use the sanitizing tools they are given, Daley said, giving the example of a disinfectant spray that is required to rest on a surface for five minutes.
Inmates deserve ‘a chance to fight’ COVID-19
Above all, she said there is a lack of education in the prison regarding COVID-19.
Before she was released, Daley put in a special request and all the people on the unit signed it.
“The request asked them to come and have a little sit-down with somebody who knows something about it (COVID-19) and just educate us a little bit, and talk about sanitation … just give us some education on this, then the girls wouldn’t be so afraid.”
In a statement, BC Corrections said frequent communication, information sessions and handouts for staff and individuals in custody about COVID-19 prevention are being provided in partnership with Provincial Health Services Authority.
In the OCC, men and women are separated. However, Daley said there are a few places they do share, including the rooms in which they make their video court appearances, as well as the health care centre. She said the women are fearful to walk through the jail because of the potential risk of infection. When they ask, Daley said they are denied masks.
“Tell the girls what’s going on, to start with. Don’t keep them in the dark.”
Several inmates are sentenced while struggling with ongoing addiction issues, which can exacerbate mental and physical health issues while imprisoned, such as withdrawal, anxiety and depression.
“Just because they got into s**t or they’re addicts or whatever, they’re still human, man,” said Daley.
B.C. union working to establish protocols for staff
The safety of staff in correctional centres has also been highlighted as an area of concern, and in turn, staff have not been quiet about these concerns.
Corrections Officers (COs) currently have access to gloves, but as of April 14, the frequency of access to masks was not yet confirmed. Questions remain regarding what level of PPE should be used in jails, according to the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU).
“We are one hundred per cent supportive of N-95 masks … and face shields, being reserved for those who are frontline health care workers dealing with those who are COVID-19 positive,” said Stephanie Smith, BC Government and Service Employees’ Union president, in an interview April 14.
“However, if there is an inmate who is symptomatic, or who has been confirmed as having COVID-19, then we expect that our correctional officers and the health care staff that are working with that inmate, have similar levels of protection … so in a blue sky, they would have N-95s and face shields.”
Concerns from COs and correctional centre staff have been directed to an email dropbox, established by the union as a result of the coronavirus. Tens of thousands of workers in the BCGEU have been deemed essential, and are working on the front lines.
“Perhaps they don’t have enough sanitation wipes, or there aren’t enough handwashing stations … those are the sort of issues we’ve been working with (BC) Corrections on,” said Smith.
Smith said some of these measures have already been implemented at centres around the province; however, some safety measures will be dictated by what provincial health officer Dr. Bonny Henry sees as required by the employer.
Smith pointed to the outbreak at the Mission Institution federal correctional centre.
On April 16, federal officials announced 61 cases of COVID-19, and one death related to the coronavirus, at the Mission facility.
“We see what happens if there is an outbreak that gains a foothold,” said Smith. “We’re seeing that at the federal corrections centre.”
“She’s (Henry) already acknowledged that jails and prisons are high-risk areas, so our hope is that she turns her mind in giving very clear direction on how they should be mitigating risk.”
Smith explained that while they continue to respond to individual members’ concerns, the BCGEU will also continue to work with the Corrections branch to develop a provincial health risk assessment.