Concerns of COVID-19 in jails continues to rise as government tries to address problem

WINNIPEG — The provincial government is reassuring Manitobans that it has a plan in place to deal with COVID-19 in jails, as cases have spiked in correctional facilities throughout Manitoba.

Justice Minister Cliff Cullen, along with medical officer of health Dr. Jazz Atwal, and the executive director of adult custody for Manitoba Corrections, Greg Skelly, addressed the media Monday morning, detailing the latest information regarding the jails.

Headingley Correctional Centre continues to be the hardest hit jail, with 33 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19, along with six staff.

Atwal said the outbreak at Headingley did not start due to an inmate.

“A guard was working, worked several days. Was off work, developed symptoms,” said Atwal. “So they were working within the correctional facility for those previous 48 hours beforehand and there was an interaction with an inmate, which lead to the virus coming within corrections.”

Atwal added officials are working on containing the outbreak, but added it will take some time before it is completely contained.

LOOKING AT A PLAN FOR JAILS

Cullen said the province has a comprehensive plan in place to make sure the cases of COVID-19 are limited in jails amongst inmates and correctional officers.

“We are taking this pandemic very seriously. We’re taking the safety of our inmates and our staff very seriously,” said Cullen.

When people are first taken into custody, they are sent to the Winnipeg Remand Centre for 14-days to isolate to make sure they don’t have COVID-19.

Atwal said each inmate is offered a test for COVID, but they are not mandatory to take.

If an inmate develops symptoms, Skelly said they are tested and moved away from the general population, sometimes with COVID-19 positive inmates.

“We treat those who are symptomatic and COVID positive essentially the same. The level of PPE is the same,” said Skelly. “When our numbers of COVID positive are, we may house them all together, but we have also housed them with symptomatic inmates because again, our level and our protocols are identical between symptomatic and COVID positive.”

When it comes to correctional staff and correctional officers, Atwal said they must perform a self-assessment test before coming into work. When they arrive, their temperature is taken and it is confirmed that they did the self-assessment test.

If staff become sick while at work, they are sent home immediately.

‘I AM GREATLY CONCERNED FOR MANITOBANS WHO ARE PRESENTLY INCARCERATED’

Following the media availability from the province Manitoba NDP Critic for Justice, Nahanni Fontaine said it doesn’t really feel like there is any plan in place to help protect jails.

Fontaine said she wasn’t really sure what was discussed during the briefing.

“There was no mention of any additional supports for correctional facilities. There was no mention on what is this comprehensive plan that the minister of justice keeps talking about,” said Fontaine.

She said she has talked with the family of inmates and staff at correctional facilities and that they are concerned.

She said she has heard that after being tested, people are not being isolated in the jails.

“I’ve spoken with two family members who have said that their brother, who is currently at Headingley, started to get sick and alongside seven other individuals were all tested for COVID. After they were tested, they were not isolated, they were sent back into general pop.”

She said those inmates waited two days to get their test results back. They ended up being positive and that’s when they were isolated.

“Manitobans who are currently sick with COVID-19 are actually being isolated in what would have been called the hole,” Fontaine said.

She said these places are outside of the building and they are very cold for the inmates.

Fontaine also noted that inmates are not being re-tested once they are allowed to return to the general population.

She feels the justice minister doesn’t have a grip on the situation right now.

“Either the minister doesn’t know what is going on in correctional facilities, or the minister thinks it is inevitable that correctional facilities will get positive cases and that there is just nothing you can do, which we know is that’s not true, or that the minister just simply doesn’t about Manitobans who are currently incarcerated.”

Fontaine said inmates have rights as well and they deserve to be protected during this pandemic.

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