Defence lawyer fears outbreak as 2nd Calgary inmate tests positive for COVID-19

A criminal defence lawyer says he’s gravely concerned a coronavirus outbreak could hit Alberta’s prison population, as a second inmate at the Calgary Remand Centre tests positive for COVID-19.

The second case was confirmed on Saturday and is unrelated to the first case which was confirmed a day earlier, Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services said.

“There is no evidence that the two cases are linked, or that there is any transmission of the virus within the Remand Centre. It appears both cases were community-acquired,” Williamson wrote in an email.

The first inmate who tested positive was admitted on May 5, the second on May 4. Both began showing symptoms after they were admitted.

The second was released from custody on May 7 and was given a mask and information about COVID-19 guidelines before his release.

Tom Engel, an Edmonton defence lawyer and president of the Canadian Prison Law Association, said coronavirus could spread like wildfire in a prison environment.

“This was something that was just a matter of time. It was going to happen,” he said.

“There’s grave concern that this is going to be the start of an outbreak.”

New inmates quarantined

Both inmates who tested positive were put in quarantine on arrival — all new inmates are quarantined for 14 days, whether or not they are showing symptoms, AHS said — and haven’t been in contact with the centre’s general population. AHS is doing contact tracing on both cases.

The first inmate who tested positive was quarantined with another inmate who was admitted at the same time. That second inmate has tested negative.

All but five of the 362 inmates have been tested for COVID-19, and AHS is awaiting those results. Staff are also being tested.

Prisoner rights advocates have called on federal corrections officials to compassionately release inmates, who they say face greater risk during the pandemic as they are less able to practice the hygiene and social distancing measures needed to prevent illness.

AHS said measures have been taken to prevent spread at Calgary Remand, like having inmates eat meals in their cells, limiting the day room to five inmates at a time and cleaning the day room between uses.

But Engel said he has heard directly from prisoners that the standard of hygiene necessary to protect inmates is not happening in Alberta jails.

“It’s akin to a cruise ship, it’s akin to an extended care centre … the prisoner population is much more unhealthy than the average Canadian outside so they are extremely vulnerable. The concern is if they contract this, there’s a significant risk of death.”

The cases at the Calgary Remand Centre are the first in an Alberta jail.

Across Canada, 333 inmates in federal prisons have contracted COVID-19 and two have died. A few dozen correctional officers have also tested positive.

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