Sarnia jail half empty to deal with COVID-19 outbreak

An Ontario jail cell from the Ontario Ombudsmen report The Code , June 2013

The Sarnia Jail is less than half full today.

Officials from the Solicitor General’s office say there are now 49 prisoners in the building which holds 101 people after a deliberate attempt to reduce the jail’s population during a COVID-19 outbreak.

Just six days ago, there were 73 people in the jail. It normally operates at 80 per cent capacity.

The COVID-19 outbreak started Feb. 7 and by the end of the week there were 14 inmates and two correctional workers who had tested positive. Over the weekend, 20 inmates and two staff also were also diagnosed with COVID-19 bringing the number of cases inside the walls of the facility to 38.

Lambton Public Health officials have been inside, helping corrections workers get a handle on the outbreak. Lori Lucas, supervisor of health services at public health, says they are testing inmates every three to five days to keep track of the emerging cases.

But officials with OSPEU, which represents correctional workers have told The Independent it is next to impossible to keep inmates social distant in the facility – one of the most effective ways of stopping the spread of the virus – if it is running near capacity. So, provincial officials started taking action.

Andrew Morrison of the Solicitor General’s media relations department says said 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.

And there are also rules for those who are still housed in the Sarnia Jail and become ill.

“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,” says Morrison.

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 more cleaning protocols for correctional officers.

Lucas says so far, most of the cases in the Sarnia Jail have been mild and some of the inmates are asymptomatic.

On Tuesday, a Chatham man’s lawyer convinced a justice in the Sarnia Court it was too dangerous to sentence her client to jail time when there was an outbreak since he already had respiratory problems. The judge agreed and sentenced him to probation instead.