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Provincial figures show that the Thunder Bay District Jail and Thunder Bay Correctional Centre have discharged 29 people with active COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

Three prominent legal groups have issued a scathing assessment of a public-health order that forces prisoners released from the Thunder Bay District Jail to report to a hotel isolation centre, a measure intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from the jail to the rest of the community.

The order issued by Thunder Bay Medical Officer of Health Janet DeMille on Feb. 8 directs all prisoners released from the facility to go to the isolation shelter for COVID-19 testing and a possible 14-day stay. Violating the order would result in a fine of $5,000 a day.

According to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO) and Aboriginal Legal Services (ALS), the order amounts to detaining people without adequate authority.

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“If the order is not rescinded, we plan on initiating a legal challenge,” said Abby Deshman, director of the CCLA’s Criminal Justice Program.

The condemnation adds a wrinkle to the Thunder Bay mayor’s contention that the city’s correctional centres may have been incubators for a COVID-19 outbreak that has engulfed the region.

Last week, as most parts of Ontario were poised to enter less restrictive phases of the pandemic measures, Thunder Bay went into lockdown. Students returned to virtual learning. Some stores stopped in-person service. By Monday, the rate of new COVID-19 cases hit 60 per 100,000, three times that of Toronto.

“We are in the worst situation we have ever experienced here so far in this pandemic,” Dr. DeMille said in a video message posted to YouTube on Monday that acknowledged the virus had moved from the region’s vulnerable populations to “essentially everywhere.”

Dr. DeMille did not address criticisms of her order nor did she respond to requests from The Globe to comment on the matter.

She issued the isolation order after it became apparent that prisoners who’d tested positive for the virus were being released into the community, some with nowhere to go but the city’s overstretched shelter system.

Provincial figures show that the Thunder Bay District Jail and Thunder Bay Correctional Centre have discharged 29 people with active COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. Both of the city’s jails had been relatively untouched by the coronavirus until early January, when the public-health unit declared an outbreak at both facilities.

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Last spring, the province reduced prison populations through diversion and early release to prevent overcrowding during the pandemic’s first wave. By January, that initiative had waned.

“Basically, by the end of October through November, our [inmate] count at the jail started climbing, and we couldn’t get the [people] out of here,” said correctional officer Bill Hayes, president of the union representing correctional staff at Thunder Bay District Jail. “When we started going through a few weeks of not being able to move people and getting more people in, I knew we were going to be in bad, bad shape come Christmastime.”

The first reported case in the jails cropped up at Thunder Bay Correctional Centre on Jan. 4.

Within four days, there were four cases between the two institutions. By the end of the month, they had reported 85 cases.

The institutions had little ability to hold the virus in check. The maximum-security Thunder Bay District Jail is a 95-year-old building with old-fashioned open-bar cells and cramped quarters. The Correctional Centre is a minimum-medium security facility with barrack-style living conditions, communal showers and communal washrooms.

A man who landed at the District Jail on Jan. 2 for breaching a bail condition said the courts had little sympathy for the brewing health implications. Despite a history of cancer and diabetes, he was there for 46 days.

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“With my medical history, I’m extremely high-risk,” said the man, whom The Globe is not identifying because he feared repercussions. “It was a terrifying experience.”

He said he was placed in the jail’s Block 2 intake unit, where arriving prisoners spent at least 14 days isolated in cells with bars covered by Lexan plastic to prevent airborne transmission. He tested positive for COVID-19 on his 20th day, but his symptoms were relatively mild.

On Feb. 10, Dr. DeMille declared an outbreak among people experiencing homelessness.

“I think most people are comfortable concluding that there has to be some connection between the outbreak she declared at the District Jail and the Correctional Centre and the outbreak she later declared in the homeless population,” Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro said.

Last week, Mr. Mauro wrote to the provincial Solicitor-General seeking assurances that the risk of spread among prisoners is being addressed.

The ministry provides discharged prisoners with cloth masks, and works with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit to secure transportation to isolation facilities. Beyond that, ministry spokesman Andrew Morrison said, the government has no legal grounds to hold anyone in custody beyond a court-ordered date.

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For now, the outbreak at the Correctional Centre is over and the jail is down to four inmate cases and two among staff.

“I’d definitely call the whole thing a worst-case scenario,” said Mr. Hayes, the local union head. “I hope it’s opened a lot of eyes in government. We suffered and now our whole community is suffering.”

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