Coronavirus hits Ontario jail system

By Cristina Howorun

A correctional officer at Toronto South Detention Centre (TSDC) in Etobicoke has tested positive for COVID-19 and is being treated in hospital, multiple sources tell CityNews.

The male officer in his 40s had recently returned from Europe and reported to work before the 14-day isolation guidelines came into effect. Once the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended self isolation for all travellers, he did so on his own accord. The Ministry of the Solicitor General had not yet adopted that protocol.

The Solicitor General learned of the results of his test late Thursday. Since then, several other officers with whom he had contact have been placed in self-isolation. Several sources confirm his last shift at the jail was March 11 and say he was most recently working in the video courtroom — escorting and overseeing inmates making court appearances via video-link.

The officer worked in several other areas of the facility. While some inmates are currently in self-isolation in the institution’s infirmary, it’s still not clear how many inmates may have had contact with the man in question. This is the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Ontario’s jails.

Sources tell CityNews that Toronto Public Health is expected to be at the institution Friday to conduct an investigation into the spread of the virus. TSDC is expected to be in lockdown for several days.

Up until earlier this week, correctional officers were expected to report for duty, regardless of travel history, unless they were symptomatic. A memo obtained by CityNews and issued on Thursday, appears to have changed those requirements for essential staff such as nurses and correctional officers — unless considered “critical to the operation of the institution.”

Later Friday, another memo was issued advising anybody who had travelled out of the country to immediately self-isolate, regardless of if they had symptoms.

To help contain the virus in the province’s jails, the Solicitor General unveiled several new measures Friday, including the potential early release of inmates near the end of their sentences if they were not convicted of violent crimes or crimes involving guns. This adds to the measures announced late last week — including increased cleaning and sanitization at jails, affording intermittent — or weekend inmates — temporary absence passes to reduce admissions to the facilities, and providing increased Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for staff.

While inmate visits have stopped, inmates have continued to have access to meetings with legal counsel, and transfers from courts and other institutions have continued.

Jails are hotbeds for community transmission, with very little opportunity for social distancing. Although inmates remain behind locked doors, they are often paired with another inmate. Correctional officers and other staff have frequent close contact with prisoners, especially during searches and admissions, and then return to their homes and communities.

In a statement issued to CityNews, Kristy Denette, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General writes:

“Our thoughts are with the correctional officer and his family during this time.

Out of respect for the officer’s health privacy we will not be commenting directly on the officer’s health nor are we in a position to confirm any health related matters. The ministry has been in contact with the local public health unit in response to COVID-19 to ensure the continued health and wellbeing of our staff and those in our custody.”

Meanwhile, staff at South West Detention Centre near Windsor are dealing with a confirmed case of COVID-19 from a contractor who worked in the facility on March 12th and 13th.

He was ordered into self-isolation by the Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit on March 14th, after showing symptoms of COVID-19. On March 18th, after receiving his test results, he was confirmed positive.

According to a memo obtained by CityNews, the contractor had no inmate interaction, but may have interacted with several staff.

Staff are being advised to self-monitor and report any symptoms to their manager.

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