Sask. Pen correctional staff isolating for an additional week: Union

Officers were already isolating from families since Dec. 22

Saskatchewan Penitentiary. (Herald File Photo)

This story was updated at 9 p.m. on Jan. 14 with details about a letter sent to correctional staff outlining restrictions they are required to follow

A representative for correctional officers at Saskatchewan Penitentiary says frustrations are high after correctional officers continue to isolate from their families as per public health guidelines.

Correctional officers began isolating from family, friends, and the community on Dec. 22. They are still going into work.

Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO-SACC-CSN) represents more than 7,300 members working in federal institutions across the country. Regional vice-president for the prairies, Ryan DeBack, said some correctional officers with families haven’t seen their kids in almost a month.

“Our main support networks are our family, and our friends and our community and we’ve been told since Dec. 22 … we’re not even allowed to have contact with our families,” DeBack said.

DeBack added that correctional officers understand they have a duty to protect the public, but are frustrated. They’re questioning why other institutions like hospitals and provincial correctional facilities that work with COVID-19 positive individuals, aren’t under the same order.

“We’re peace officers. We want to do our job and we want to protect the public, no question. But we also want to ask the question, why is it that we’re being singled out on this?”

A spokesperson for the SHA said that there is not a specific public health order in place for correctional staff. Instead, the province-wide public health order mandates that people who are in close contact with COVID-19 positive individuals isolate for 14 days.

DeBack added that the situation is putting a “huge amount” of stress on officers who provide an essential service.

“I know people’s mental health is deteriorating rapidly. I’m genuinely concerned and I’m worried about how that’s going to impact our members who are stuck doing, I would argue, one of the toughest jobs a person could ever do,” DeBack said.

He explained that the concerns of correctional officers have been relayed to the local public health officer and other decision makers. Some members have tried reaching out to local MLAs. So far, he said, none of it has had an effect.

DeBack said it would help if the two sides could figure out how to balance the community needs “with the real life stress and toll it’s taking on our members.”

Correctional officers are also looking for acknowledgement from the federal government, who runs the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, among other institutions. Their biggest concern is hazard pay. DeBack said they promised the provinces a $4/hr raise for essential employees. He wondered why federal corrections officers don’t fall under that provision, but added it’s not about the money.

“It would be a show of respect for the work that we’re doing,” he explained.

DeBack also touched on correctional officer’s mental health. He said that officers are suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at rates of 30 per cent or higher. Working during the pandemic has taken a toll on officers, he explained, and they want the federal government to acknowledge that.

As for the provincial government, DeBack feels they are singling out penitentiary staff.

“I understand it’s about protecting the community and those types of things, but there has to be some common sense. I think it’s patently unreasonable for a member who is protecting the public that cannot see his kids for almost a month and counting.”

Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) which is responsible for federal institutions, said they understand this is a difficult time for staff and they are grateful for the work they do. A spokesperson added that resources are available for staff who need support.

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

Vaccine rollout

DeBack also touched on the vaccine rollout that begun in federal institutions on Friday.

He said correctional officers should be prioritized in the rollout. CSC is responsible for vaccinating inmates, whereas the provincial health departments are responsible for vaccinating correctional staff.

“CSC and (Public Health Agency of Canada) are working closely with the provinces and territories to facilitate access to the COVID-19 vaccine for staff in accordance with the priority groups identified by (National Advisory Committee on Immunization),” a CSC statement released last week read.

Letter to Sask. Pen staff sheds light on COVID-19 restrictions they must follow

Saskatchewan Penitentiary staff are required to self-isolate with the exception of going to work, and must follow a number of different restrictions according to a Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) letter sent to employees and provided to the Herald.

“You have been identified as having had a higher risk of exposure and under the Public Health order you are required to immediately self-isolate and remain on isolation until Jan. 19 at midnight,” the letter reads.

The letter includes SHA’s logo and is signed by the local medical health officer, Dr. Khami Chokani. The date stamp is Jan. 8, 2021.

The letter lists a number of guidelines for employees to follow. Employees are permitted to go to work at the penitentiary so long as they haven’t had COVID-19 symptoms recently and continue not to have any. Staff are required to isolate at home and not have any interaction with others including household members. They are also not allowed to work other jobs while the order is in place.

Employees must go straight home after work, this includes stopping for groceries or gas. If they don’t have someone who can drop off groceries, they are allowed to use contactless pick up. If they require gas, employees are must pay at the pump and use hand sanitizer before and after the transaction.

Earlier this week, an SHA spokesperson said there was not a specific order in place for Saskatchewan Penitentiary employees, instead saying that the same Public Health order is in place for any Saskatchewan resident who is identified as close contact to a COVID-19 positive individual.

A union representative told the Herald earlier this week that the isolation is putting “huge amount of stress on staff.”

Ryan DeBack, regional vice president of Union of Canadian Correctional Officers said that staff mental health is deteriorating and he is concerned about how self-isolation will impact employees.

“The stress that it is putting on staff is unbelievable,” DeBack said.

Saskatchewan Penitentiary staff have been self-isolating since Dec. 22.