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Inmates and union leadership at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre say they have little information about the Ontario government’s plan to respond to COVID-19, even after a correctional officer in Toronto tested positive for the virus last week.

In interviews with The Globe, seven inmates raised questions about a plan to release some inmates early, and said they were concerned about what would happen if someone in the institution tested positive. As an open dorm-style institution, there is not adequate space to socially distance oneself or self-isolate, they added. As of publication time, Thunder Bay had no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Shawn Bradshaw, the president of OPSEU Local 708, the union representing the facility’s workers, said that the Ministry of the Solicitor-General, which is responsible for provincial corrections, has not yet put a pandemic plan into force.

“We are arguing that they need to cease many of the operations, some of them they have pared down, but they need to act pre-emptively, not reactively,” he said.

The ministry will be releasing inmates through its temporary-absence process, according to a press release on Friday. Inmates convicted of serious crimes, such as violent crimes or those involving guns will not be considered for early release, the ministry said.

Previously, inmates’ applications for temporary absence of longer than 72 hours needed to be decided by the Ontario Parole Board. Legislative changes made last week now allow senior corrections officials to make those decisions as well.

In addition to its early release plans, the ministry has suspended inmates’ personal visits; allowed inmates serving intermittent sentences to stay home; and moved parole hearings to written or electronic methods.

Phil Rosnow, 43, who is serving a sentence for criminal harassment related to text messages he sent, is hoping for early release – and sooner rather than later. A little more than 30 days from his release date, Mr. Rosnow’s greatest concern is that the virus could touch his family – his parents, two young nieces, or sister – while he’s inside.

“This virus is travelling pretty quick," he said. "What is it going to be like when I get out?”

At his lawyer’s suggestion, Mr. Rosnow started making written requests for information about early release last week. He’s waiting to hear back.

Jim Tolver, 40, who is two weeks away from the end of a sentence for drug possession, has also requested information about early release. Like other inmates, Mr. Tolver said he learned of the possibility for early release through word of mouth and the news, not from the ministry.

"They are continuing to put us at risk here, and for the staff too, they are also at risk, this isn’t just me wanting to protect the inmates,” he added.

Brent Ross, a ministry spokesperson, clarified the early release process on Tuesday, saying the ministry is “proactively” reviewing all inmates to determine whether they are eligible for early release.

Mr. Ross said that inmates are not expected to apply and will instead be notified if they qualify. The review is being done by a “centralized team." Asked when inmates can expect to be notified, Mr. Ross said development of the process is under way and is a priority.

Mr. Bradshaw, the union president, said that morale among correctional staff is extremely low. Until last Thursday, the ministry was requiring correctional staff who had returned from trips outside the country to come to work, despite public health direction to self-isolate, he added.

“I’ve never seen relations get this low and it’s nothing to do with our local management, it’s entirely up the chain, and they’re putting people’s lives at risk,” he said.

He is also concerned that non-essential transfers of inmates are still being made and workers who refill canteen supplies and perform maintenance are still being allowed into the institution.

Bill Hayes, the president of OPSEU Local 737, the union representing the Thunder Bay District Jail’s workers, said that if the ministry agreed to share its pandemic plan with union leadership, it would help them answer questions from other staff and ease the panic.

Shaune Keith Krentz, who is set to be released on Sunday, said that the mood among inmates is also tense.

“It is provoking a lot of anxiety, depression, despair, because of the powerlessness of not being able to take any true action,” Mr. Krentz said.

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