A Supreme Court judge bluntly accused corrections bosses of failing to adequately protect inmates and staff from the introduction and potential spread of Covid-19 in the NWT’s largest jail.
Justice Andrew Mahar went so far as to suggest corrections “grab a bunch of T-shirts from Walmart” to fashion simple face coverings while waiting for a shipment of pre-made masks to arrive at the North Slave Correctional Complex [NSCC].
“I really am baffled at the steps that [haven’t] been taken,” said Mahar on Monday afternoon, questioning complex warden John Nahanni.
Nahanni was testifying at a bail hearing for Colten McNeely, convicted of manslaughter in the death of Lloyd Edgi. McNeely is awaiting sentencing later this year.
“Is there any practical reason that you couldn’t test every new inmate who comes into the facility? Are there simply not enough tests? We’re talking [now] maybe 12 to 15 people a month,“ queried the judge.
“Surely you can accomplish testing 15 people a month, to make sure you [don’t allow] an asymptomatic inmate into the facility? Is that something the facility is looking into doing?”
“I could absolutely look into it,” came the warden’s reply, noting the prisoner intake has been cut by more than half since the justice system adjusted for the pandemic.
“No, I said, ‘Are you looking into it already?’” replied the judge.
“Uh, I have not, no. It’s something I will follow through with.”
‘It boggles my mind’
Mahar also wondered why the temperature of all people arriving at the facility could not be checked, as a fever is one symptom of Covid-19.
“How complicated is it to take somebody’s temperature when they arrive at the facility? It’s not complicated. I know you don’t have temperature guns, but you have thermometers and you have nursing staff,“ said the judge.
“I have no idea why people aren’t being at least screened in terms of temperature. It makes no sense to me why people aren’t being temperature screened.
“After an infection hits a facility, it’s too late. It just boggles my mind that this far into a pandemic, people aren’t being temperature screened. I didn’t want to use this as an opportunity to put you on the spot, but maybe this is an opportunity to at least flag some of these things.”
Mahar previously found McNeely guilty of manslaughter in the death of his friend Edgi during a drunken early-morning confrontation in Fort Good Hope.
At the start of McNeely’s bail hearing, the judge said he had been doing a “deep dive” into the global pandemic and ways to manage it.
McNeely’s sentencing hearing is expected to be held over two days in Fort Good Hope in October, but he wanted to be released on bail to a couple’s home in Norman Wells until then as he is afraid he could catch the novel coronavirus in jail.
“I don’t feel safe with the measures being taken,” said McNeely, under questioning from his lawyer.
McNeely admitted he only gets asthma attacks when the air is smoky – such as during wildfire season – and that he could self-isolate in his cell if he wanted to avoid any close contact with other inmates.
“You could do that, but it’s hard to do,” he said via video link from the jail. “There’s not much to do in your cell.”
Bail request denied
Nahanni said the jail’s supply of medical-grade masks is being managed until new orders arrive. Plans are in the works to acquire cloth masks which can be useful in preventing the spread of disease if people can’t keep socially distant. He said the cloth masks should arrive by April 27.
Nahanni testified that as of Monday morning, five inmates at NSCC had been tested after showing possible symptoms of the novel coronavirus. All were cleared.
As of Monday, the inmate population numbered 90 in a facility with a capacity of 148. There is no double bunking and each inmate has a sink and toilet in their cells.
There have been a couple of cautions issued to inmates for not properly socially distancing, he said.
Nahanni said every new inmate is screened for signs of illness first by front-line corrections staff – who fill out a questionnaire with the inmate – then by nurses who discuss any medical issues.
Nahanni said he hopes to eventually receive testing apparatus that can deliver results in one hour. Right now, it can take days to get results back, with inmates quarantined in special cells with fewer amenities until then.
He said the jail has done much to protect staff and inmates from Covid-19, but it is proving hard to secure items such as face masks.
Mahar said he understood McNeely was concerned over the global pandemic – “Colten, I understand you’re afraid, I’m afraid too,” he admitted – but he could not allow a person convicted of manslaughter out on bail.
Mahar said McNeely has lost his “presumption of innocence” with his conviction in January and, in the eyes of the law, is little different to a sentenced inmate.
It was the second time in as many weeks that Nahanni testified over the phone at a bail hearing for an inmate concerned about catching Covid-19 behind bars.
Last week, Nahanni appeared when convicted drug dealer Darcy Oake applied for bail in similar circumstances.
Oake ended up withdrawing his application for bail.