On May 28, the COVID-19 outbreak at Mission Institution was officially declared over by Dr. Bonnie Henry, but four months later, staffing shortages plague the medium-security prison.
Two more staff tested positive for COVID-19 in mid September, causing another 21 employees to self isolate from work, according to Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).
“Mission Institution has temporarily reduced inmate activities including some restrictions to yard access and visits,” CSC said by email on Sept. 17. “CSC assesses operational decisions around schedules and activities on a regular basis when taking into consideration staffing levels.”
CSC said the new infections are not considered an outbreak, as the staff members were not in direct contact with prisoners.
But the new shortages add to an already stretched workforce of correctional officers.
The prison is operating with approximately 60 per cent of its guard workforce, according to Derek Chin, president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers for the Pacific Region. He added similar shortages are affecting federal prisons across Canada.
Chin said guards at Mission Institution had staffing issues prior to the outbreak, but problems have been compounded by work related injuries, certain ailments among immunocompromised staff, summer leaves and “tired,” overworked members.
“Things aren’t always great at that site when it comes to labour relations,” Chin said. “There have been a lot of officers that have been worked pretty hard, lots of hours, they feel under-appreciated.”
Mission Institution and Kent Institution, the maximum security facility in Agassiz, are the worst affected federal prisons in the region regarding these shortages, Chin said.
The longest shift a guard can work is 16 hours under the UCCO’s collective agreement with CSC, Chin said, adding the only real solution has been to provide more overtime, and they are not expecting to get many new hires.
“There’s only so much overtime you can do a day to keep your daily operations going, [it can affect] whether the inmates get their yard [time] or regular routine,” he said. “Sometimes, you just don’t have the bodies when it comes to a particular shift.”
CSC said they have been able to ensure an adequate amount of staff required for Mission’s operations, and it’s regularly reviewed by human resources.
“Staff on-site have shown flexibility and some have worked extended hours to meet the operational requirements of running the institution,” CSC said. “Mission Institution anticipates being able to return to regular activities as soon as the staff have been cleared from self isolation.”
The affect on the mental health of prisoners has been detrimental, said Joanne Fry, who chairs the Mission Prison Family Association (MPFA). She formed the group during the first wave of COVID-19, which infected a dozen guards and 40 per cent of the inmate population, leading to one death.
Fry says visitations have now been cancelled for six weeks in a row, and staff have been coercing inmates into accepting additional hours of lockdown by threat of continued restrictions on family contact.
She sent a letter to Mission’s management on Sept. 24.
“CSC demands unreasonable ‘co-operation’ from the inmates but continues to be unfair and unreasonable themselves in almost every situation, and continues to ignore our requests for basic necessities during these extremely difficult times, such as adequate telephones per unit so the inmates can at the very least maintain minimal connection and communication with their families,” the letter said.
Another member of the MFPA, Carol Anne Leith, said that prisoners are not agreeing to the terms CSC is proposing. She said prisoners are being moved to different units for organizing other inmates to demand their basic rights from management.
“It’s not the guards, it’s management that’s doing this,” Leith said. “They’re trying to make deals with them for the things that they’re supposed to have.”
She said video chats have been cancelled for over a month, and the lack of contact with family members is causing a mental health crisis among the inmates.
“The mental breakdowns are on a daily basis, there’s guys slicing themselves and having nervous breakdowns and anxiety attacks,” she said. “There’s basically no help whatsoever.”