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Island Health declares COVID-19 outbreak at Saanich jail

Comes after 18 inmates test positive in associated cases
A COVID-19 outbreak at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre in Saanich has seen 18 inmates test positive for the virus as of Nov. 1. (Black Press Media file photo)

Island Health has confirmed a COVID-19 outbreak among inmates at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre in Saanich.

As of Nov. 1, the health authority said 18 inmates had tested positive and were associated with the outbreak. No staff have contracted the virus and no one has been hospitalized or has died.

Island Health said a number of cases have been reported at the prison in recent weeks, but it wasn’t until the final week of October that they met the requirement of ongoing transmission needed to be defined as an outbreak.

At the start of October, six cases were reported by the B.C. Government Employees Union. At the time, a spokesperson for the union called for better cleaning procedures and less punitive methods to isolate inmates.

It’s a concern echoed by the West Coast Prison Justice Society, whose executive director Jen Metcalfe said they are receiving regular complaints about lockdown measures and isolation from inmates across the province. In the last two months, she estimated the society has heard from 10 inmates at the Vancouver Island facility with COVID-19 concerns.

READ ALSO: Six new COVID-19 cases at Vancouver Island Regional Correction Centre

“We’re concerned about people’s well-being and mental health,” she said. Recently, they’ve heard from two different inmates at the jail who told the prison justice society they had been under restrictive lockdown measures for 39 and 42 days respectively.

Island Health said after a case is confirmed at the jail, impacted units may be temporarily locked down or may have reduced movement within the centre, as contact tracing and further testing takes place. The Ministry of Public Safety said in a statement those decisions are made in consultation with health-care professionals and every effort is made to adhere to the regular living schedule within units.

The issue Metcalfe said, is that every time a new case appears in a unit the 14-day isolation requirement resets and inmates end up in a continuous cycle of limited activites. Shelly Bazuik, a legal advocate with the prison justice society, said they’ve heard of several fights breaking out from restless inmates who haven’t been allowed to go to the gym or yard to exercise.

“There’s some clients who are depressed, others have other mental health issues and they cannot handle being isolated that much so they’re acting out and getting in trouble,” she said.

Island Health said it’s working with the prison on taking steps to ensure inmate and staff safety. The health authority added there is no risk to the public at this time.

According to the B.C. Corrections COVID-19 fact sheet, all inmates are offered their first and/or second vaccination doses as early as reasonably possible after they’re admitted.

All B.C. Corrections staff and anyone working, volunteering or providing services within a correctional centre or community corrections office are subject to the B.C. Public Services Agency’s requirement to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22.

The jail had 216 individuals in custody as of Oct. 31.

-With files from Jane Skrypnek

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