Blue Line

COVID-19 outbreak ends at Sarnia Jail

March 19, 2021  By Canadian Press

March 19, 2021 – The COVID outbreak at the Sarnia Jail that lasted more than a month and affected more than 50 people has finally been declared over.

Lambton Public Health announced the news Wednesday. It was the county’s second worst workplace outbreak of the entire pandemic, and during its peak was the largest outbreak in an Ontario corrections facility.

“We’re happy we’re out of the outbreak and on the other side of it,” says Joel Bissonnette, president of OPSEU 128 representing correctional workers at the jail. “It was stressful working in those conditions.”

The outbreak began Feb. 7 with two inmate cases. In a matter of days it ballooned to 47 inmates positive for the virus. Five staff members also became COVID positive. All 52 people recovered.

The jail attempted several measures to stop the spread, including separating positive inmates from those who hadn’t become sick, isolating all new inmates, and requiring mask wearing at all times. But the layout of the jail added to the problem.

“The environment is what’s challenging, to keep something like that contained when it’s all open bars,” says Bissonnette.

Sarnia’s largely open concept meant several inmates were sent to neighboring facilities during the outbreak. Jails such as the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London separate inmates with walls rather than bars, allowing for better isolation.

Few inmates remained in Sarnia who had not contracted the virus. This added hardship was used successfully several times in court as defense lawyers argued for reduced sentences for their clients.

Inmate capacity in Sarnia had hovered around 80 per cent for most of the pandemic. But transfers and temporary absence passes during the outbreak dropped this number to less than half of the jail’s 101 inmate capacity. On Mar. 11 the jail has 52 people in custody.

Bissonnette believes the jail will slowly see a return to pre-outbreak inmate numbers. “I don’t see any reason why we won’t be back to operating like we were before the outbreak. It also depends on whether we’re getting people arrested and incarcerated,” says Bissonnette.

The Solicitor General’s office, through Spokesperson Andrew Morrison, says “The ministry has been working with its justice partners to reduce the number of individuals coming into custody across Ontario. These decisions are based on a number of factors to ensure community safety remains paramount.”

For the moment, inmates in the jail have returned to general population and can take their masks off while in their cells. New inmates are still housed in a different isolation unit of the jail for 14 days.

Bissonnette says the hard work of the jail’s correctional officers finally helped bring the outbreak to a close. “I can’t speak enough of how well staff did their job,” he says. “Being so diligent and using proper PPE all the time was definitely a huge factor in that.”

“All staff really stepped up to the challenge and did their job well,” says Bissonnette.

There are no concrete plans for fundamental changes to jail layout, such as a reimaging of cell construction. Bissonnette says staff are always hoping for upgrades.

“Our ministry has invested in doing increased programming and supports for inmates; that needs more infrastructure as well,” he says.

“Even outside the pandemic, improvement to our infrastructure will always be welcome.”

Correctional officers and inmates are scheduled to receive COVID vaccinations during Phase Two of Ontario’s vaccine rollout.

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