Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon MP Brad Vis. File Photo.

Federal handling of COVID-19 outbreak at Mission Institution criticized by MPs, advocates

MPs joint statement takes aim at Correctional Service Canada, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair

Sharp words have been directed at the federal government over Mission Institution’s COVID-19 outbreak by local MPs, Indigenous leaders and civil rights groups.

An inmate died at Abbotsford Regional Hospital from complications from COVID-19 on Wednesday, April 15. Since the first case was announced less than two weeks ago, eight correctional officers have been infected along with other 54 inmates. It’s the worst outbreak at any prison in Canada.

The MPs of Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon and Abbotsford released a joint statement criticizing Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), and the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.

“Proactive communication to our community from CSC has been and continues to be absent,” reads the statement from Mission’s Brad Vis and Abbotsford’s Ed Fast. “The public is understandably concerned about measures being taken to arrest the spread of the virus within the prison population, amongst frontline correctional officers, and in the wider community.”

The MPs took aim at Bill Blair, the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and his “wholly insufficient” comments about the situation on Thursday, April 16.

“It is incumbent upon our federal institutions to keep the public informed,” the statement says. “The public is currently unaware of what measures have been taken to protect inmates, correctional officers and the general public. This is largely due to the failure of his Ministry to communicate those measures and to assure the community that every necessary step is being taken to uphold public safety.”

Their statement offers condolences to the victim and the family of the inmate.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said the government’s reaction to the infection of their prison population has been far to slow, which is concerning considering almost one-third of federal inmates are Indigenous.

“The passivity of the Government of Canada as COVID-19 spreads through federal prison populations has been an alarming display of inhumanity, and one with lethal consequences,” Phillip said. “We demand an immediate and proactive response from Canada to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the federal prison system.”

Joint Effort, a community group which works with women prisoners in the Lower Mainland, has been lobbying government officials to release non-violent offenders and people awaiting trial. The group says the health protocols currently being used are inhumane.

“We warned them that their inaction would led to an exponential growth in COVID-19 infections endangering the most vulnerable, especially prisoners who are over fifty years old, pregnant, immunocompromised, sick or have pre-existing conditions that make them high risk for dying from COVID-19,” a statement from the group.

“With physical visitations being cancelled, family members and volunteer groups must be able to maintain contact through phones and online platforms.”

Mission’s Mayor, Pam Alexis, has also stated her worry over the situation at the medium security prison.

“The news of cases of COVID-19 at Mission Medium Institution is deeply concerning,” she said. “This is not only a serious public health issue for the inmates on lockdown and the staff working there, but is a great concern for the staff who are residents of Mission and have families at home and go about their lives within the community.”

A corrections officer working at the prison, who spoke with Black Press Media on April 4 before the outbreak’s confirmation, said that a total of 15 officers had to self-isolate due the outbreak, and that much of prison-life was carrying on as normal before then.

RELATED: Two inmates found positive for COVID-19 at Mission Institution; two other tests pending

In all, 70 Mission inmates have been tested. Ten tests came back negative and six tests are still pending. A lockdown is currently in place as a precautionary measure.

The 54 positive tests are more than a third of the 145 total cases in federal prisons across Canada. Quebec’s Joliette Institution has 48 positive cases.

– with files from Kevin Mills

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