COVID-19 and the Federal Prison Situation in Quebec: a disaster in the making

May 18, 2020

Over the past month, USJE has been working to highlight the challenges that our staff have been confronting at several Correctional Service of Canada institutions, including Port Cartier, Mission and the Traning Centre in Laval. USJE expects to share more in the coming week(s) about the impact of these challenges on front line employees, what's currently working and what needs to change to keep our members safe.

CSC must prioritize appropriate health measures to protect its employees, inmates, and the public.

May 11, 2020 (Ottawa) — The Quebec section of the Union of Safety and Justice Employees (USJE) is decrying inadequate prevention and safety measures for staff and offenders in Quebec penitentiaries and fears that a catastrophe is looming on the horizon.

“The global COVID-19 crisis is sparing no one and the prison and transitional environment is particularly conducive to the contamination of those who inhabit it, both as employees and as offenders,” said Karine Kergoat and Andréanne Samson, Quebec USJE members and respectively Regional Vice-President for Quebec (CSC) and Local President, Montreal Metro District (CSC-Community-PBC).

“We are hearing daily from our Sisters and Brothers that our employer, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), does not realize how serious the situation has become, and must do more to protect those who work and reside in institutions,” the representatives said.

Federal correctional institutions are entrusted with offenders serving federal sentences of imprisonment in accordance with the law. They are assessed as soon as they enter the federal prison system and referred to the appropriate institution based on their level of risk, dangerousness and needs. A health crisis such as the global COVID-19 pandemic increases the risk factor for managing offenders in penitentiaries due to its impact on their level of stress and anxiety, which is itself an aggravating factor when combined with already difficult circumstances.

In addition, a quick return to normal operations, as envisaged by CSC senior management, would also lead to an overly hasty easing of measures and protocols aimed at managing COVID-19 while the crisis is still in full swing. The risk of transmission would increase with the return of all staff to the various institutions.

“Our Sister and Brother parole officers and other staff of the Correctional Service of Canada face a dangerous work environment that is conducive to community contamination outside of institutions by virtue of its high concentration of persons infected with COVID-19 and the insufficient sanitary measures that are being implemented,” said the representatives.

For example, several USJE staff reported that until very recently, inmates with only basic surface cleaning training were responsible for cleaning living and working areas in correctional institutions.

At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, instead of increasing its institutional services staff and bringing in experts to train them in disinfecting this particular virus, CSC preferred to order staff from other departments to peform cleaning tasks. These employees did so with all the professional conscientiousness they are known for, even though it is not part of their responsibilities. However, given the extent of the spread in Quebec correctional institutions, we believe that cleaning surfaces is not nearly enough; instead, it would be necessary to disinfect several times a day.

“Our employer has an obligation to protect the public and everything that is being done at the Correctional Service of Canada with respect to the prevention and control of COVID-19 must be improved. While governments around the world are moving heaven and earth to contain the health crisis, CSC management must stop being reactive and must act decisively before the end of the pandemic to protect its staff and the public,” concluded Karine Kergoat and Andréanne Samson on behalf of USJE.

URGENT REQUESTS TO CSC

In light of this serious and unprecedented situation, USJE urgently calls on the Correctional Service of Canada to implement the following mandatory measures in order to prioritize the health and safety of employees and inmates:

1) Publish its action plan for the management of COVID-19 in every federal institution, every community correctional centre (CCC), and every parole office, particularly where there is an outbreak, such as at the Federal Training Centre in Laval.

2) Where there is a COVID-19 outbreak, test all people (including employees and inmates) who are at these federal institutions, CCCs and parole offices, regardless if they present coronavirus symptoms or not. According to our employees, only those with clear symptoms are currently eligible for COVID-19 testing.

3) Do not rush returning to normal operations, including the right to outside visits, until virus management is fully in hand at the institution in question, and clear prevention measures are in place and well communicated to all employees and inmates.

TESTIMONIALS

“We work at the Federal Training Centre in Laval, where I am the USJE local president. We are the most affected penitentiary in Quebec with more than 103 offenders and 22 staff members infected with COVID-19. And now there has been the unfortunate death of one inmate, as well as the hospitalization of several inmates and one employee.

At first, the employer naively thought that we would not be affected by the crisis and did not listen to any of the common sense recommendations made by staff. When the pandemic was finally taken seriously, CSC had no choice but to implement our recommendations, but the damage had already been done due to the delay.”

-Réal Tessier, Local President, Federal Training Centre Laval (CSC)

“As the local USJE president, I am hearing from many employees that CSC has minimized the situation by delaying implementation of the measures announced by our governments and by failing to implement staff reduction plans or aggressive preventive disinfection and procedural changes in our institutions. The result at Joliette Institution has been catastrophic, with 49 staff members and more than 50 inmates infected.”

-Dominique St-Jean, Local President, Joliette Institution (CSC)

"At the Port-Cartier Institution, our union and the employees were quickly concerned about a potential coronavirus outbreak within our walls. Unfortunately, I have observed that concrete measures have been slow to come and that the seriousness of the situation seems to have been considered only after the confirmation of the first cases, which increased rapidly. A total of 26 employees and 16 inmates were infected. Although currently stable, the situation had the potential to be much worse. Since we are anticipating the arrival of a second wave of the virus within the next few months, it will be important to approach the situation in a preventative and collaborative, rather than reactive, manner. »

-Jonathan Beaupré, Local President, Port-Cartier Institution (CSC)

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The USJE represents more than 16,000 federal public service employees who work in various federal departments and agencies in the fields of security or justice. The majority of USJE members are CSC employees in federal minimum, medium and maximum security institutions, community correctional centres and parole offices across Canada. The second-largest group of USJE members are RCMP employees. http://www.usje-sesj.com/en/usje