A COVID-19 outbreak has been declared at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre after an inmate tested positive.
Prisoner advocates have been raising alarm over the risks of an outbreak inside the jail for weeks, including multiple reports of inmates who were sick but may not have been tested.
With news of the confirmed outbreak, Hamilton defence attorney Dean Collett, whose office has been fielding calls from distraught family, said he’s bracing for “an avalanche.”
Hamilton medical officer of health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson confirmed the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC) was one of four “emerging outbreaks” in the city on Friday.
One inmate has been confirmed and public health is investigating, she said, adding that she does not yet have further details. Public health has been working with the jail since the beginning of the crisis, looking at how to minimize spread.
The Ministry of the Solicitor General also confirmed an inmate has tested positive, said spokesperson Kristy Denette, adding that every institution, including HWDC, has an individualized pandemic plan.
The jail is currently under lockdown to protect inmates and staff, she said on Friday night.
Other safety measures include a supply of personal protective equipment for staff, housing new inmates in a separate area for two weeks, increased cleaning, medical isolation for impacted inmates and self-isolation for staff as directed by public health, she said.
The outbreak follows a correctional employee at the jail testing positive on March 25.
Advocates, inmates and families say jails make inmates susceptible because of close quarters and inability to socially isolate. Inmates have complained about a lack of cleaning, movement of inmates around the jail and uncertainty about who is being released early.
The population at the jail has decreased in recent weeks as many people are being granted bail. Other measures put in place by the Ministry of the Solicitor General include suspending visits, as well as granting temporary absences to people serving intermittent sentences and some inmates near the end of their sentence.
“We have been very concerned for our clients for weeks as this seemed like an inevitability,” Collett said about the confirmed COVID-19 case at the Barton Street jail.
He said he’s been particularly concerned since the province announced Monday it was temporarily closing the jail in Brampton and relocating inmates to the Toronto South Detention Centre because of an outbreak.
At the Barton jail, where Collett has regularly visited clients, he said he’s “seen first hand how antiquated it is and how badly it needs updating.”
When the jail was built decades ago it was designed to be one to a cell, but is now often three to a cell — with one inmate sleeping on a mattress on the floor.
“These crammed cells are where inmates are locked inside to eat meals and where they share an open toilet,” Collett said, adding that in his opinion, “this is one of the great shames in our community.”
The COVID-19 situation only “amplifies” those concerns, he said.
Others, including the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project, have been calling for the release of prisoners.
One inmate, Justin Thombs, who has been describing the lack of cleaning and other concerns about the jail was granted parole at a hearing earlier this month. But he remains behind bars with a planned release date of May 4.
His mom, Madeline, says she’s hoping they will reconsider letting him out now since there is a confirmed case.
Originally published in The Hamilton Spectator, Friday April 24th 2020.