Test more correctional officers for COVID-19 to ease burden in prisons, union says

OTTAWA — Widespread testing of correctional officers for COVID-19 would ease the current strain on hard-pressed staff, the national president of a union representing federal prison workers says.

Broader testing would identify employees who do not have the virus, ensuring they can continue to work, Jeff Wilkins of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers told the House of Commons health committee Wednesday.

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Some correctional officers have been sent home for 14 days after coming into contact with a person who tested positive for the virus, Wilkins said. In turn, that has increased the burden for remaining staff who must work longer hours or juggle shifts.

Wilkins said he sent a letter to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair on April 2 urging COVID-19 testing for correctional officers.

Procedures for testing fall under provincial jurisdiction, meaning there are varying levels of availability for officers at prisons across the country, he said. "Affected sites have been forced to find creative solutions through scheduling and voluntary workplace change to simply hold the front line."

This remains a significant issue, with four institutions — three in Quebec, one in B.C. — dealing with serious staffing difficulties, he added. "They would greatly benefit from quick and ongoing testing for both inmates and staff."

Wilkins said there had been a culture shift within the prison service, noting early in the COVID-19 crisis employees were threatened with discipline from the Correctional Service for wearing masks based on their own assessments of risk.

"The Correctional Service of Canada's position was that only they could assess the risk, and they were worried that wearing a mask could elicit fear amongst the inmate population," he said.

"But now the opposite is true. In just one short month, discipline is now being threatened if a mask is not worn routinely, if physical distancing is not an option."

A federal call for the prison service and national parole board to consider releasing some inmates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 behind bars has sparked concerns for the Canadian Police Association.

Releasing offenders at a time when police resources are "already stretched thin" could place an additional burden on forces, said association president Tom Stamatakis, whose organization represents front-line officers.

Overall, there have been few serious problems for police during the pandemic, he indicated.

However, Stamatakis cited a lack of consistency on messaging to the public about stay-at-home orders across the country, leading to confusion and possibly uneven levels of enforcement.

Police and bylaw enforcement officers have generally been using education and encouragement to resolve most cases, he said.

"That being said, I can certainly understand the frustration and even anger that has been expressed by members of the public who have found themselves potentially facing significant fines for infractions that can, in many cases, seem unclear."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2020.

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