Adam DeVries says he has asthma, epilepsy and is missing his right lung.
But he claims he’s been denied a cheap, non-medical facemask that could save his life because he’s a prisoner inside the Surrey Pretrial Services Centre awaiting trial.
DeVries wants to know why that provincial jail is refusing to allow inmates to protect themselves, while another nearby B.C. jail is providing masks to its prisoners.
“Catching COVID, I’m sure, would kill me,” says DeVries, speaking by phone from within the maximum-security Surrey facility. “You put something like COVID into my lungs, I’m dead.”
DeVries, 39, claims there was a recent case of the disease at the provincially run jail, which sparked a one-day lockdown.
The B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, which oversees B.C. Corrections, confirms four individuals in provincial custody have tested positive for COVID-19 and two cases remain active.
It says those cases have not resulted in a spread to staff or inmates, but would provide no further details on the situation within the Surrey Pretrial centre.
COVID-19 could spread ‘like wildfire’
In federal institutions housing inmates sentenced to more than two years, it’s been a much deadlier story.
There have been at least two COVID-19 outbreaks at federally run prisons in B.C., including 120 inmates who contracted the disease at the Mission institution in April.
One prisoner died.
DeVries says he’s terrified there could be a similar deadly outbreak inside B.C-run jails.
“One person having COVID in here jeopardizes the chance of that stuff spreading through here like wildfire,” he says.
‘Why is our safety less important?’
A repeat offender, DeVries has been in custody since April awaiting a November trial for breaking and entering and possession of stolen property.
He points out most of the estimated 400 inmates at Surrey Pretrial are innocent until proven guilty — incarcerated until bail hearings or court dates.
The rest of the population, approximately 30 per cent, are serving provincial jail terms.
“I understand we’re in jail … but why is our safety less important and people’s safety out there?” asks DeVries. “I put in two health care requests to have masks and they said, ‘Well, you’re in a facility that’s segregated from the community, so you don’t need one.’ “
Masks seized ‘as contraband’
Just 16 kilometres away, it’s a different situation at similar B.C. jail — the North Fraser Pretrial centre in Port Coquitlam.
DeVries’s lawyer, Alyson Dorin, says her other clients incarcerated at that facility tell her masks are readily available there.
“If one institution doesn’t believe that they pose a threat to the security or management of the institution, then I fail to see why Surrey Pretrial does,” says Dorin.
“Not only are masks prohibited [at Surrey], but inmates caught with a mask have it seized and thrown out. The masks are treated as contraband,” says Dorin. “Surrey Pretrial hasn’t justified why these inmates are not allowed to wear masks.”
‘No mask requirement’ for inmates
Contacted by CBC News, the B.C. Solicitor General’s office says during the current provincial election campaign it can only provide a limited response.
But it emailed a “fact sheet” stating all new inmates — including those returning from court appearances — are placed in isolation units for 14 days before joining the jail population, and “no longer pose a transmission threat to one-another.”
As a result, there is “no mask requirement” for prisoners.
The sheet says inmate counts are reduced due to COVID concerns, and that “all staff and contractors must wear an approved face mask when within the centres when physical distancing is not possible.”
But DeVries says at least 40 per cent of guards fail to take proper precautions.
“Not all of them wear their masks all the time to begin with,” says DeVries. “[Others] wear them around their chin, you know, their nose is uncovered. They’re not worn properly.”
He worries guards are the greatest threat because they come in and out of the institution every day.
Guards ‘potentially contagious’
It’s a concern shared by his lawyer.
“Correctional staff are potentially contagious. They are out in the general public when they’re not at work, and then they’re exposing inmates potentially to the coronavirus,” says Dorin. “If the inmates at Surrey Pretrial were able to wear face masks, then they’d have a greater level of protection.”
DeVries says he’s not just concerned for himself.
He’s worried the public could be in jeopardy, because inmates are regularly released — on bail and after serving their jail sentences — and could take COVID-19 with them into the community.
“You know, it’s a safety thing,” says DeVries.
“The safer we are, the safer the public is.”
CBC Vancouver’s Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email [email protected].