Coronavirus: Ontario jail guards battle with province over use of protective gear

The union representing correctional officers in Ontario says some of its members have refused to work after they were not allowed to wear protective gear amid the spread of COVID-19 in provincial jails.

Some institutions allow guards to wear surgical masks and gloves while others don’t, said Chris Jackel, a spokesman for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

Last week, guards at Monteith Correctional Complex near Timmins, Ont., refused to work after they asked, but weren’t allowed to wear the protective equipment near an inmate who started showing symptoms of COVID-19, said Jackel.

“Then the (inmate’s) test results come in positive and they say, sure, you can wear PPE (personal protective equipment),” Jackel said. “It’s so ridiculous, we don’t understand.”

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Solicitor General said jails across the province have access to protective equipment, adding that the health of its workers and inmates is a “top priority.”

“The ministry is currently working with bargaining partners to address outstanding matters, such as the use of personal masks,” said Kristy Denette.

As of April 6, three inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, the one in Monteith and three at the Toronto South Detention Centre. One staff member at Toronto South and another at Hamilton-Wentworth also tested positive for the disease, she said.

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Guards also refused to work their shift in the Sarnia Jail last week over similar concerns, Jackel said.

The layout of the jail, including more use of bars rather than walls, is a problem, he said.

“As you’re walking through that unit, you’re going to fail the social distancing measuring stick,” Jackel said.

“You’ll fail it every time, it’s so small.”

Correctional staff there wanted to wear protective equipment because of that, but they were denied, he said. So they refused to work.

Three days later the ministry changed course and allowed the guards to protect themselves, he said.

“The ministry has since turned their mind to it, but it’s a waste of three days. Just say yes at the start,” Jackel said.

“Why did we have to go through three days of anxiety and a work refusal?”

The union wants the ministry to place clear and simple measures at all institutions. He recognizes that masks and gloves are in short supply around the world, but wants all correctional workers to wear protective gear during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, guards at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre refused to work due to the lack of screening measures in place. It was an issue across the province.

That situation has been rectified after weeks of negotiations.

Earlier this week, jails began the screening of guards and visitors, which includes a temperature check and a self-assessment.

“They initially said ‘no’ then it changed to ‘what would screening look like’ to implementing it,” Jackel said. “It was a long process, but we’re glad that’s in place.”

Denette said the measures have now been put in place in its institutions across the province. The ministry has also moved to reduce the jail population, she said, in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Since April 2, 2020, nine low-risk offenders close to the end of their sentences have been released from custody under a temporary absence pass,” Denette said.

“The ministry has also given temporary absence passes to intermittent offenders, who would normally spend weekends in custody.”

She said the ministry is also working with courts and police to reduce the numbers inside jails. Those measures include more people out on bail and police releasing individuals on a promise-to-appear in court at a later date.

Since mid-March, the Ontario jail population has been reduced to 6,148 inmates from 8,344, she said.

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