COVID-19 has now taken hold inside the walls of Manitoba’s only federal prison.
As of Monday, 29 inmates and eight staff at Stony Mountain Institution had tested positive for the virus, said assistant warden of operations Keri Emms in an email distributed to Manitoba’s defence lawyers and obtained by the Free Press.
"Our institution is currently operating on a code red restricted routine," Emms wrote. "We are doing our best to stop this virus from spreading further in our site."
As recently as Nov. 10, Correctional Service Canada reported just one inmate had tested positive for the virus. Late Tuesday afternoon, only 10 active cases were reported at the prison on the Correctional Service Canada website.
All in-person and video visits are suspended at the prison, with inmates restricted to their assigned units and only one inmate allowed out of their cell at a time.
"Given this, we would request lawyers are only reaching out to the site if there is an urgent matter to discuss with their client," Emms wrote. "We will facilitate contact as best we can during these restrictions."
All inmates serving time at Stony Mountain have already been sentenced, but some face charges for offences allegedly committed while in the prison. Lawyer James Lowry has two such clients.
"Hopefully by the time we get to trial I will have a client who can be brought down (to court) and won’t need to be hospitalized or worse," he said.
Prisoners "are really nervous," Lowry said. "Prison’s not a good place to be in the first place, and now it’s even worse."
In recent weeks, as the province’s jails have grappled with their own outbreaks, inmate transfers to Stony Mountain have been suspended in an effort to stem the spread of the virus, said Gerri Wiebe, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba.
While lawyer access to clients may not be as prevalent an issue at Stony Mountain as it is in the provincial system, greater restrictions at the prison make it harder for those inmates still before the court to prepare or argue their cases.
"If we are trying to reach our clients now, they are often in lockdown, we can’t necessarily get them because (prison staff) can’t move them to an area where they can use a telephone," Wiebe said. "If they are deemed positive, potentially positive, or exposed, my understanding is that the same procedures are being instituted and they are essentially locked down.
"It’s just limiting and limiting and limiting access to justice on all fronts," she said.
Correctional Service Canada did not respond to a request for comment by press time. In a news release confirming the first positive COVID-19 case at Stony Mountain prison, posted online Nov. 10, CSC said: "We are monitoring this situation closely and diligently, and we continue to apply our infection prevention and control measures."
Stony has the capacity to house 797 inmates, but current inmate numbers were not readily available.
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