Inmate says Covid-19 distancing ‘impossible’ inside NWT jail
The only sure way to avoid Covid-19 in the Northwest Territories’ largest jail is to isolate yourself in your cell, an approximately 80 square-foot space with its own toilet and sink, an inmate said.
“Everyone doesn’t listen to the rules,” convicted drug dealer Darcy Oake told a bail hearing in Supreme Court on Tuesday.
“The only way to stay six feet apart in our pod is to stay in your cell all day long. But even then, you have to go out and get your meal … and the phones too, they are two feet apart … you’re sitting face-to-face with someone else who is on a phone that hasn’t been disinfected or whatever.”
In recent weeks, Yellowknife’s North Slave Correctional Complex [NSCC] has imposed restrictions on where prisoners eat, how they can exercise and take showers, and access to visitors and counselling such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
NSCC’s warden, John Nahanni, told the court every new inmate is screened for signs of illness first by front-line corrections staff, then by registered nurses.
If any symptoms are found – or if an inmate is deemed to be at high-risk because of travel or contact with infected people – they will be placed in personal protective gear and isolated until tests can be done.
All staff are screened at the start of each of the three shifts each day and, if any are sick, they are asked to go home and follow the chief public health officer’s guidelines.
“The staff is required to get into an unsafe personal distance if there is an escalation in behaviours … say get hands on if there is a fight,” Nahanni testified on the phone from his office at NSCC.
“When doing rounds … there can be less than [six feet] distance and that has to be reviewed and a new policy put into place. There are going to be additional masks worn by staff.
“There’s no how-to manual, as things progress we are learning … the appropriate changes to make everyone as safe as possible.
“I hope I never, ever get to see [something like this] again in my lifetime.”
How easy is six feet in jail?
To date, three inmates at NSCC have been tested after showing symptoms of the novel coronavirus that causes the dangerous respiratory disease, but all were cleared.
Earlier this month, justice minister Caroline Wawzonek announced seven inmates had been granted temporary absences. Each had fewer than three months left on their sentences.
Inmates on intermittent sentences have also been granted temporary absences. Wawzonek said only accused people considered a threat to public safety would be denied bail.
In March, a group of 15 defence lawyers petitioned the NWT government to explain plans for handling Covid-19 and release inmates when possible to protect them from any possible outbreak.
As of Tuesday morning, there were 91 inmates in the 140-person capacity NSCC, meaning each has their own cell. Of those, 38 are sentenced prisoners, with the rest awaiting trial or sentencing.
Staff have spoken to each inmate about the dangers of Covid-19 and the importance of maintaining a six-foot separation between people, the court heard.
Crown prosecutor Duane Praught asked Oake if it would be completely impossible to maintain the six-foot social distancing recommendations.
“It’s out of my control … I could ask them to stay six feet away from me, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to,” said Oake, admitting he could do more to stay away from other inmates, such as waiting to pick up his meal tray last.
“But when you have to move around the building, it’s kind-of impossible.”
‘Risk of rapid transmission’
Oake, who has asthma, is looking to get bail until he is sentenced later this year. He could face more than 10 years in prison.
In January, Justice Shannon Smallwood found Oake guilty of importing and possessing furanyl-fentanyl – a synthesized designer drug considered 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine – and criminal negligence causing bodily harm after a friend of his severely overdosed on the substance.
At the start of his trial, Oake had pleaded guilty to a separate charge of trafficking furanyl-fentanyl.
Oake’s defence lawyer, who was part of the group of 15 lawyers mentioned above, said his client’s pre-existing asthma would place him at an elevated risk of severe illness should Covid-19 make its way into the jail.
“Individuals who are in custody are at risk of rapid transmission of Covid-19,” Oake’s counsel said.
“My concern is that it is impossible to guarantee Covid-19 won’t show up at NSCC.”
Oake wants to be released to stay at his father’s house, with Dean Oake telling the court he is willing to risk a $5,000 surety if his son violates conditions. The elder Oake has done that before, when his son was on bail in 2018 and he discovered a replica firearm. Darcy Oake had also been using cocaine.
“Would you have any difficulty calling police again if there was a breach … or any misconduct at all on Darcy’s part?” asked Praught.
“No, I wouldn’t,” came the response.
If given bail – in a case thought to be a first in Canada for a convicted person – Darcy Oake would live with his father’s girlfriend and a roommate. Both have full-time jobs and come and go to work throughout the week.
Oake was 22 years old in late November 2016 when RCMP charged him with drug trafficking and criminal negligence causing bodily harm.
“Yes, the risk is higher if Covid-19 gets in the facility,” said Praught. “The question is, would the risk to Mr Oake be so significantly higher in [the jail] than outside to require his release after being convicted of some very serious offences?
“The management at the facility has taken all steps to mitigate the risk as much as possible and at some point – just like all of us in society who have had to undertake isolation and to self-monitor and restrict our liberty – the inmates, to a certain degree, have a personal responsibility to try to ensure their own safety and separate each other as much as possible.
“Those inmates, including Mr Oake, are in there for a reason.”
Justice Smallwood reserved her decision on bail until Friday afternoon.