Anxiety builds for family members of Headingley inmates as outbreak grows

WINNIPEG — Family members of inmates at Headingley Correctional Centre are expressing fear and feelings of helplessness, as the number of COVID-19 cases at the jail rises.

“I feel uneasy, he’s isolated from family,” Matthew Shorting, whose brother is currently incarcerated at the jail, told CTV News Thursday.

Shorting said his 27-year-old brother was set to be released in April.

“He should be in his prime. It’s kind of scary that’s he’s locked in there,” Shorting said.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, confimred on Thursday there are 32 COVID-19 cases linked to Headingley, including 29 inmates and three staff members.

Around two hundred inmates are self-isolating at the jail, which currently has 576 inmates.

Shorting said he hasn’t spoken to his brother in weeks.

“We had our mother pass about two years ago. So he’s part of all I’ve got left.”

Along with Headingley, the coronavirus has crept into other Manitoba jails, including Milner Ridge, the Winnipeg Remand Centre, The Manitoba Youth Centre and the Brandon Correctional Centre.

ADVOCATE SAYS OVERCROWDING PUTS INMATES AND PUBLIC AT RISK

“There is no possibility for social distancing in a prison environment,” said Martha Paynter, a registered nurse who treats inmates in Nova Scotia.

Paynter also runs Women’s Wellness Within, a non-profit organization supporting women, transgender and non-binary people who have been incarcerated.

She said overcrowding in Canadian jails puts the inmates and the public at risk.

“It’s poised for both disease transmission within the facility and then taking it in and outside because everyday staff are coming in and out,” she told CTV News.

The union representing correctional officers is also worried about the staff and said the province knew an outbreak was likely and should have provided more personal protective equipment beforehand.

“They need the gowns, the gloves, the masks that are required to make sure they’re safe at work,” said Michelle Gawronsky, the president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.

PROVINCE MAKING ‘EVERY EFFORT’ TO CONTAIN SPREAD

In a statement to CTV News, a spokesperson for the province said “Corrections is making every effort to contain the spread of the virus and ensure the facility is safe.”

“Corrections has adequate staff to cover the posts that are temporarily vacated by those self-isolating.”

Gawronsky voiced concern that some correctional officers in smaller communities are being singled out.

“People are scared and they’re nervous about being around these folks and (they’re) being stigmatized and it’s not right.”

Shorting said the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Manitoba jails highlights “cracks in society.”

“People who are in prison, they almost get dehumanized behind labels,” he said. “They still have a brother. (My brother) still has a partner, he still has children.” 

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