Corrections union says Sarnia jail could use enhanced cleaning as it battles a COVID-19 outbreak

The Sarnia Jail pictured here at the left of the photo has a COVID-19 outbreak with 34 inmates and four corrections officer who have tested positive.

Public Health says 14 inmates and 2 corrections officer have tested positive

Alex Kurial/Local Journalism Initiative

The union representing correctional workers at the Sarnia Jail says more cleaning equipment and supplies would be vital to help fend off the spread of COVID-19 within its walls.

This comes in the wake of a sweeping outbreak of the virus at the Christina St. facility. Thursday there were 14 active cases in the inmate population, along with two guard.

Laurie Nancekivell, OPSEU regional vice-president for the Sarnia area, says there are specific measures the provincial government could take right now to protect staff and inmates. 

“There really can’t be enough cleaning, and there can’t be enough cleaning tools,” she says. “An example would be a fogger. They’re not cheap, but it’s something that would be used all the time.”

Foggers, also known as electrostatic sprayers, turn liquid disinfectant into aerosols which are dispersed throughout an area when sprayed. They aren’t intended to replace conventional cleaning methods such as disinfectant wipes, but rather add an extra layer of security and hit hard-to-reach or overlooked areas. 

The machines aren’t cheap, often running into the thousands of dollars. But Nancekivell says they would pay off long after the pandemic ends. “It’s not as though it’s an expense that would just be specific to COVID… that would be a very well used tool that could be used repeatedly,” she says.

“When you think of things like the costs that are added to workers being sick and needing to isolate – and all of the inmates as well –  the cost of a fogger, you probably could see the benefit of that,” Nancekivell says of the machine’s upfront cost. 

Nancekivell says government help with new or enhanced cleaning ideas would also be welcome. “Any type of additional training, or training updates with regards to cleaning and cleaning procedures, that really is the target of what we think is needed.”

“I think that the money will come back to them [government] in other savings if they spend it now on cleaning tools and instruments,” she adds.

As for the current outbreak, the Solicitor General’s office says “Any inmate that tests positive for COVID-19 is placed under droplet precautions and isolated from the rest of the inmate population while they receive appropriate medical care.”

“The ministry continues to work with local public health authorities to complete contact tracing, and voluntary testing of inmates is ongoing,” says Andrew Morrison of the ministry’s media relations department. 

As of Wednesday evening the Sarnia Jail had 73 inmates in custody. The jail has operated at an average of 82 per cent of its 101 inmate capacity during the past six months. 

Morrison says the ministry has tried to reduce the number of inmates in jail through a temporary absence program, where people serving intermittent sentences can do their time in the community. Several safety measures have been introduced for inmates who must come into the jail, including new inmates spending their first two weeks separated from the general population along with a wave of cleaning protocols for correctional officers.

“The staff have done really well, the members going in and dealing with this,” says Nancekivell. “It’s stressful, and it’s anxiety producing. They’re going in and they’re doing the work, and they also know that they’re going home to their families. So it really does take a toll.”

Relief is on the horizon as provincial jails are scheduled to receive vaccinations in Phase Two of Ontario’s immunization rollout, under the category of “individuals living and working in high-risk congregate settings.” 

But there is still the question of how everyone eligible for vaccines in the next phase will be prioritized. Nancekivell believes correctional facilities will be near the top of the list.

“I think the correctional facilities will be higher in Phase 2,” she says. “Considering the congregate setting, there’s vulnerable people on both sides, and you need to have the staff working.”

“There’s limited space in a jail. You can’t segregate and you can’t have people stay six feet apart in that kind of a setting. It’s just not there,” says Nancekivell.

The topic of vaccines being administered to jails is controversial. Last month Premier Doug Ford and Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole blasted the federal government’s decision to give 1,200 doses to 600 federal inmates.

“Let’s not give the most dangerous criminals in our country the vaccine before we give it to our long-term care patients, most vulnerable, and other elderly people,” Ford said early January.

“How do you square this? How do you put them [inmates] ahead of long-term care patients? How do you put them in front of all the most vulnerable,” the premier added. 

Nancekivell hopes political and public pressure won’t bump jails down the list or create animosity toward inmates and staff. 

“I think that anytime there’s anything happening about funding for corrections, you’re always going to have keyboard warriors and people who are expressing their opinions,” she says. “I wouldn’t say that’s the majority of the community, but no doubt it is some people in the community.”

Nancekivell says clearer direction from the government could help prevent this. “When citizens are left with not having an understood, rolled out plan, and when there’s fears of shortages of vaccines, it’s fear talking,” she says. “You’re always going to have those types of comments and people reacting out of fear, and maybe not knowing exactly what’s happening because we’re not being kept well informed.”

Ultimately Nancekivell hopes people will see past the negative associations with people in jail.

“Most people can understand and appreciate the setting for long-term care, and for hospitals,” Nancekivell says of the first recipients of the vaccine. 

“But other types of judgement come in when it’s at a correctional facility. I think that a lot of those people understand the staff [receiving vaccines], but they don’t understand the inmates. But they’re people too.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is a program supported by The Government of Canada to enhance news gathering in communities across the country.