During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Alex Doyle was doing his best to follow public health orders and keep himself and his young family free of infection.
But last November, Doyle ended up back in Manitoba’s Stony Mountain Institution north of Winnipeg after violating parole conditions for a drug trafficking and break and enter conviction.
And that’s where he may have inadvertently become a superspreader in Canada’s worst outbreak so far in a federal penitentiary.
Doyle’s story, and the experiences of other Stony Mountain inmates who became infected, is part of the testimony being gathered in a class-action lawsuit against the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) on behalf of federal prisoners across the country.
“The whole range, everyone was mad at me like it’s my fault and it wasn’t my fault,” Doyle, 33, said recently in a series of telephone interviews with CBC News.
Doyle arrived at Stony Mountain on Nov. 6. He was segregated in an isolation cell known by inmates as the hole.
He was tested for COVID-19 nearly a week later and when it came back negative, he was moved to another area of the prison where he said one of the inmates had already tested positive for COVID-19.
The first inmate at Stony Mountain tested positive on Nov. 10. Four days later, public health officials declared an outbreak.
Inmates were locked down. They were allowed only 30 minutes out of their cells each day — just enough time for a quick shower and maybe a call home, if the lineups weren’t too long.
On Nov. 20, when his 14-day quarantine was up, Doyle said he was moved to yet another medium security unit. Despite having a cough, he wasn’t immediately tested for COVID-19, he said. It was a Friday and Doyle said he was told he would have to wait until Monday.
During that weekend, Doyle said he socialized with other inmates during the 30 minutes they were allowed outside of their cells. They were all wearing masks, but in close quarters.
“I thought I was good because [penitentiary staff] cleared me to come here and, you know, I was talking to my friends and stuff. That’s probably how it got passed around,” he said.
Two days later, Doyle said his test came back positive. But by then, he said, he may have directly infected at least three people, and they, in turn, infected others.
Les Bisson is one of the men who claimed to have developed symptoms within days. He started coughing up blood and had problems breathing, he said. His COVID-19 test on Dec. 2 came back positive.
“I literally thought I was going to die a month ago. I sat there, looking at pictures, thinking how I’ll never be able to be a father to my kids again,” Bisson, 40, said with a break in his voice. He is serving eight years for drug trafficking.
“We thought that was just on our range. Now, I know that that’s happened on at least two of the ranges.… If it was once, it would be an accident. But to do something over and over and over again, you can’t say that’s an accident.”
‘I feel like they failed miserably’
At its worst, nearly half of the 744 inmates at Stony Mountain had COVID-19, making it the largest outbreak at any federally run correctional facility in Canada.
In December, an inmate died of COVID-19 complications, one of four deaths so far in prisons across the country.
CBC News spoke with eight inmates over the past several weeks who said they believe the outbreak may have been caused by Stony Mountain relaxing the 14-day quarantine rules for new inmates and not testing frequently enough.
“I feel like they failed miserably. Our range was green, which means no COVID, and they moved a COVID-positive inmate to our range,” said 30-year-old Grayson Wesley, who is serving an eight-year sentence for unlawful confinement.
Wesley said he was infected at the end of November and sent to hospital because he couldn’t breathe. He still has trouble with his memory and worries about getting sick again, he said.
“There’s a new COVID variant out there. If that comes into the jail, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” he said.
Mike Bourget also started feeling symptoms shortly after Doyle arrived on his unit, but said he wasn’t tested for three days. When the results came back, he was positive.
“My symptoms were not that bad, not compared to my fellow inmates here…. It is more of the mental aspect right now,” said Bourget, who is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. “My emotions and anxiety is like a roller-coaster.”
No officials at Stony Mountain were available for an interview, but a spokesperson for the CSC said inmates and staff are tested regularly, even those who are asymptomatic.
“All inmates at Stony Mountain Institution were tested as they left isolation cells and before they were moved to a different range,” Kelly Dae Dash wrote in an email to CBC News.
“All inmates that tested positive for COVID-19 were immediately moved to a separate area of the institution which operated under single cell movement and was specifically designated for COVID-19 cases.”
Throughout the outbreak, inmates have also had wellness checks by health services staff.
Oldest prison in Canada
Part of the challenge in containing the virus is the age and layout of the institution. Of the four federal prisons built in the 19th century, Stony Mountain is the only one still operating.
Unlike newer facilities where a door with a tiny window separates an inmate from the hallway, most cells at Stony Mountain have only bars opening into a long hallway. It makes physical distancing difficult and there is constant air flow between cells.
Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert is of the same vintage and layout, and has had similar problems with COVID-19. There have been 247 cases and one death, although there are currently only seven active cases.
Inmates in SaskPen’s medium security units say they were putting blankets on the bars of their cells, but the correctional officers removed them.
“They’ve ripped down all of our curtains and everything that would protect us from the airborne virus from the guys out there … sick on the unit,” Bronson Gordon, 36, said in a phone call several weeks ago with prisoner advocate Sherri Maier, who shared a recording of the conversation with CBC News in Saskatchewan. Gordon is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.
He said they asked the guard how long they’d have to live under such conditions, without access to mental health services or elders.
“But he was just like, ‘All you guys are going to be locked down 23½ hours for a … long time, because until you guys have no COVID-19 on the unit, this unit is going to be run like this,'” Gordon told Maier.
Gordon was recently sent to a maximum security unit after a confrontation with a guard. He said conditions there are significantly better because it’s a newer part of the prison and cells have doors with windows instead of bars.
The CSC said it is looking into Gordon’s allegations.
Class-action lawsuit alleges negligence
Inmates at federal institutions including Stony Mountain and SaskPen are now preparing written statements for a class-action lawsuit launched initially on behalf of an inmate at Mission Institution east of Vancouver.
That lawsuit has since expanded to include the whole country except for Quebec, which operates under a different civil law system. A certification hearing is scheduled in Vancouver for January 2022.
“Prisoners who are known to have COVID are put with prisoners who don’t have COVID. That’s by definition negligent,” said Jeffrey Hartman, one of the lawyers involved in the suit.
Hartman says there is no question the federal government has failed in its duty to protect inmates despite having adequate time to prepare for the second wave.
Those systemic failures resulted in loss of life, widespread illness and unprecedented restrictions of inmates’ rights, he said.
A similar class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of inmates at Joliette Institution for Women north of Montreal. There are also two lawsuits launched by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society, alleging the federal government violated prisoners’ charter rights by locking them down for so long as part of COVID-19 restrictions.
None of the allegations in any of the lawsuits has been proven in court.
Meanwhile, range representatives from Stony Mountain’s inmate welfare committee said they were called to a meeting last week with senior prison management.
They were told that with no active COVID-19 cases right now, some of the lockdown restrictions are being lifted.
“The point of the meeting wasn’t to apologize,” said Mulata Ibrahim, 35, a unit rep who is serving a seven-year sentence for drug trafficking. “It was that they’re trying to move forward and saying, ‘What can we do now to make it easier for you guys?'”
After the meeting, inmates started receiving food three times a day instead of just two, and many were able to go outside for the first time in months, Ibrahim said.
In a statement, the CSC said it has put in place extensive infection prevention and control measures in its 43 institutions.
- Mandatory mask-wearing for inmates and staff.
- Physical distancing measures.
- Active health screening of anyone entering institutions.
- Increased and enhanced cleaning and disinfection at sites.
- Training 250 employees to conduct contact tracing.
- Carrying out significant testing among inmates and staff, including asymptomatic individuals.
The CSC has also completed its first phase of 600 COVID-19 vaccinations, which includes an unknown number of older, medically vulnerable inmates at Stony Mountain.
The department had no comment on the class-action lawsuits.