‘I couldn’t really breathe’: Former inmate on COVID-19 at federal prison

24-year-old Chastin Hall, who became COVID-19 positive while at Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, disputes the government narrative of how the outbreak was handled

Saskatchewan Penitentiary. (Herald File Photo)

A 24-year-old released in January after contracting COVID-19 at Saskatchewan Penitentiary (Sask. Pen) in Prince Albert described a recent outbreak at the institution as “inevitable.” 

Chastin Hall said he was incarcerated on April 20 for violation of parole and breaching a curfew. Although his warrant expired on July 24 last year he was held on remand because of other matters before the courts and released on Jan. 21, he said. 

Hall said keeping inmates longer than their original sentence also contributed to crowded conditions at the penitentiary – facilitating the spread of the virus. 

“I got tested three times at the beginning and I came back negative. After the fourth time, I came back positive for it, because they just kept me on the range, and they didn’t let me leave the range or anything. They just left me there and I got it eventually,” Hall said. 

“The spread was inevitable because of how many people they have locked up in a small place.” 

Hall said personal protective equipment (PPE) wasn’t used properly and that inmates testing positive for the virus were not quarantined. He said inmates who had tested positive for the virus were being “moved around” in the general population. 

Hall said inmates should not have been transferred between institutions while the virus was spreading. 

“It was only a matter of time because they were still doing transfers when there was COVID. And there wasn’t supposed to be anything like that going on. That’s how it was initially brought to the penitentiary was an inmate transfer coming from Manitoba,” Hall said. 

“You’re there 24-hours and the guy next to you is only maybe three or four feet away from you so it’s spreading, and the air only circulates the air that’s already inside the jail. So, it just spread through the air.”

He said he was made to use the same mask for a month and that inmates were not taught how to properly use face masks and described nurses not changing their PPE when moving from areas where inmates with COVID-19 were being kept. 

“There’s a specific way that they’re supposed to teach people how to take off their masks and every piece of material that you have on you to dispose of properly. But they never teach anybody that. I didn’t even know that until I got out. They’re not enforcing anybody wearing masks or anything,” Hall said. 

“You’re supposed to use a new mask after a few uses – only having it for so long. But I had a mask for a whole month because they didn’t give me another one.” 

Public health declared an outbreak at the Sask. Pen on Dec. 12 that remains listed by the Saskatchewan Health Authority as active. The federal institution followed suit, having announced an outbreak at the penitentiary on Dec. 15. As of Jan. 25, the CSC said that there were no longer any known active cases of COVID-19 among inmates at the institution, signalling an improvement to the situation among inmates and staff. 

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples national vice-chief Kim Beaudin had pointed to disproportionate numbers of Indigenous people incarcerated at the penitentiary and likened the conditions to a “death sentence” for inmates. 

He called on the CSC to release all inmates held for non-violent offences and to ensure any infected inmates are given separate living quarters from other inmates. 

“I also urge that those kept caged in Canada’s colonial federal penitentiaries be given access to the programs, contact with loved ones and volunteers, and supplies required to come out of this crisis alive,” Beaudin said. 

“Inaction will signal to Indigenous peoples that our lives do not matter, and that the federal government remains unable to move past colonialist legacies.” 

The rate of Indigenous incarceration within provincial correctional facilities in Saskatchewan hovers around 76 per cent. At the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, which is a federal facility, the number is around 65 per cent. 

According to data available from the annual report of the office of the correctional investigator (2018-2019), “Indigenous offenders are overrepresented in the number of incidents of attempted suicide, accounting for 39 per cent of all such incidents in the last 10 years.” 

The latest annual report of the Correctional Investigator of Canada was tabled in parliament on Feb. 18. In his latest report, Correctional Investigator of Canada, Ivan Zinger said problems in the workplace environment and corporate culture of the CSC creates adverse conditions for inmates. 

Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair’s Press Secretary Mary-Liz Power told the Prince Albert Daily Herald in December that the federal government had implemented a number of protocols to contain the spread of COVID-19 in its facilities. 

“No segment of society has gone untouched by COVID-19. Our government is focused on protecting and supporting all Canadians, including inmates and correctional staff,” Power said. 

“We know the unique vulnerabilities facing correctional institutions during this public health crisis. In response to COVID-19 cases in federal institutions, Correctional Services Canada (CSC) has put in place extensive infection prevention and control measures across all institutions, at all security levels.” 

Those measures include mandatory masks for inmates and staff, physical distancing measures, active health screening of anyone entering an institution, contact tracing and increased and enhanced cleaning and disinfection at sites. Rapid testing is also in use for both staff and inmates, she said. 

Since the beginning of March, the overall federal custody population has declined by over 1,300 inmates. Those transferring into Saskatchewan Penitentiary are screened for COVID-19. Inmates transferring into the institution are medically isolated for 14 days after arrival, Power said. 

“They have the support of medical staff as well as unit staff during their isolation. They are housed in a separate unit during their isolation. CSC works closely with local public health experts to guide their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have already strengthened their infection prevention procedures to protect staff, offenders, and the community.” 

Power said that additional personal protective equipment was also made available for inmates and staff, as needed. Hall said inmates began to lose hope as the virus spread around the penitentiary and because of not being allowed outside for a bit of fresh air during the day while on lockdown.

“They’re just keeping guys locked in their cells. Even guys that are recovered already are only getting so much time out of their cell – like a half hour per day. That’s 23 and a half hours locked down in a cell. And the way that they’re treating everybody is they just stopped coming around doing wellness checks,” Hall said. 

He described the death of a friend from the virus who he said was refused when he requested to be quarantine and said he had to witness multiple suicide attempts by prisoners who became overwhelmed by conditions during the outbreak. 

“There were a couple guys that killed themselves. When my friend hung himself there was no guard to come and help him or anything and I had to yell for a guard. It took us like 15 minutes, and he was hanging for that long. He survived though. Just barely. 

“I could see my other friend; he was only about eight cells down from me. He hung himself and the nurses had to come resuscitate him and take him to the hospital,” Hall said. 

“There’s my one buddy, Charles Francis, he was telling them, ‘I’m really vulnerable, I’m in my 50s.’ He was telling the nurse and he said that ‘I don’t want to catch COVID.’ “He eventually caught COVID after we all caught it and he went to the hospital; he was there for about a month. Then they came by one day and just told us that he passed away. If they’d handled it better, he would have been here still.” 

Spokesperson Kelly Dae Dash said that CSC provides its own health care to inmates and has “dedicated health care professionals in its institutions, including nurses and doctors, who are closely monitoring everyone in medical isolation.” 

“The health and safety of our employees, offenders, and the public remains our top priority during this public health pandemic,” Dash said. 

Dash said inmate movements were kept to a minimum and that CSC modified routines to ensure proper physical distancing and reduce possible transmission within different ranges in order to limit transmission as much as possible. 

“Given the closed living environment, positive inmates and close contacts are medically isolating in their cells. During the isolation period, inmates have access to health care staff as well as institutional staff,” Dash said. 

“In addition, health care staff are completing wellness checks throughout the day.” 

The CSC said that although inmates were self-isolating in their individual cells, they had daily access to telephones, showers, and time out of their cells while physical distancing measures were maintained. Inmates are also able to request telephone visits with Elders and Chaplains, Dash said. 

“Saskatchewan Penitentiary has also provided inmates with wellness packages that include individual activities and snacks. Meals and medications are being delivered to inmates.”

But Hall said the narrative put forward by the federal government and CSC doesn’t reflect his experience at the penitentiary at all. 

When Hall tested positive, he was kept in the same cell on the same range with healthy inmates. He said he was given a box of juice and an extra granola bar every once in a while, but that staff rarely checked to see how he was doing while he was sick. 

“They barely came around. Even when I told him that I wasn’t really feeling that great. That I couldn’t really breathe,” Hall said. 

Hall felt like he was ‘forced’ to contract the virus because he was kept in the same block as sick inmates while he was healthy. The cells are only divided by bars, he said, allowing air to circulate freely between them. 

When he was finally released after recovering, guards walked him through the general population and out the front door, Hall said. 

“The way that some people say that they handle things is a lot different than what they really do and it’s putting a lot of lives at risk. It doesn’t matter what that person did, they are still human. I believe that our human rights matter and that nobody should be forced to get COVID or to just suffer and watch your friends pass away because of it.” 

Hall, who is a member of the Big River First Nation, lamented the high rates of Indigenous inmates at Sask. Pen. He said many have become so used to prison life that they are unable to function outside the system or go back to their home communities and feel safe. 

He said better programs are needed to reintegrate prisoners into society once released had some words for the friends he left behind at the penitentiary. “All they know is jail, and they feel scared when they come out. So, they want to go back right away because that’s all they know. There’s a lot of guys like that,” Hall said. 

Hall had some parting words for the friends he left behind at the penitentiary.  “Stay strong, keep your head up. And when you get out make a difference. Instead of making a statistic and ending up back in jail. You can create a better life for yourself.”