Advocates call for more accountability after carbon monoxide incident at Pine Grove Correctional Centre


Prisoner rights advocates say there needs to be more accountability after multiple inmates became sick with carbon monoxide poisoning at Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert.

The Ministry of Corrections and Policing confirmed on Friday that two inmates and a staff member were taken to hospital with nausea, headaches, and other symptoms of prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide. Another two inmates were given the option go to Victoria Hospital for treatment but declined.

Ministry spokesman Noel Busse said on Friday the issue was a faulty heater unit. He also said inmates reported a funny smell to corrections staff, which led to an immediate investigation by SaskEnergy.

Sherri Maier, a prisoner advocate with Beyond Prison Walls Canada, said there should have been carbon monoxide detector in place before the incident occurred, so inmates don’t have to notify staff about dangerously high levels.

“If landlords or businesses have no detectors, they (would) be sued for negligence,” Maier wrote in an email to the Herald. “A family could lose their children to Social Services, but the government gets away with this…. They just keep pointing the finger rather than accept responsibility.”

When asked if the unit had carbon monoxide detectors at the time of the incident, Busse said he wasn’t sure. He added that carbon monoxide detectors have since been installed in the unit, and said a review was ongoing.

Maier said that’s not a good enough response, and called on Minister Christine Tell to apologize to inmates for the ministry’s negligence.

“She needs to stop hiding behind her legislative office and show her face and speak to this rather than having her spokesperson do it for her,” Maier wrote. “She needs to step down as she has failed inmates far too many times.”

Busse didn’t give an exact timeline for the incident, but said corrections staff received reports of a funny smell late Wednesday morning. Staff immediately called SaskEnergy, who investigated and detected elevated levels of Carbon Monoxide.

The ministry called in a contractor to investigator. That contractor tracked the issue to a faulty heater unit, which was replaced.

By early afternoon, Busse said, all inmates were out of the unit and waiting in the chapel or a recreational area. SaskEnergy eventually cleared the area, and all inmates returned to the unit by 4 p.m. that day.

The Ministry of Corrections says the problem was isolated to that single unit.

A social media post circulating around Prince Albert said 23 Pine Grove inmates were suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. The poster also claimed correctional officers didn’t notice until they found all 23 women asleep, and took three hours to move all inmates to safety.

On Friday, Busse said the ministry was aware of social media reports, but found no indication any of the claims were accurate.

“I don’t want to get too deep into that,” Busse said when asked about the social media post. “It is somewhat frustrating when this information does get into the public, even though it’s related to an incident that did happen.

“There are inaccuracies that are contained in there. I’m sure you are aware of how fast word travels back on social media. It gets a little hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube when inaccuracies like that do come out.”

Pine Grove Correctional Centre is a closed custody secure facility.

“We do have contingency plans in place for when we need to move people out of the units,” Busse said. “I’m not ready to share the details of the contingency plan. It’s a secure facility. We try to keep those things secure.”

FSIN calls for investigation

FSIN vice-chief Heather Bear called on authorities to immediately inspect and replace aging equipment at Pine Grove following reports of Wednesday’s gas leak.

Bears said the FSIN has received several complaints from inmates’ family members about the facility. They’re worried authorities aren’t taking the problem seriously enough.

“If our staff was not contacted about this potentially deadly situation, we would have never known,” Bear said in a press release. “We still don’t know for sure the seriousness of what took place. These women are human beings and were put at serious risk, which could have resulted in tragedy.”