An inmate at Headingley Correctional Centre says everyone knows if you get caught doing the crime you do the time, but COVID-19 wasn't supposed to be part of their sentence.
The 31-year-old inmate, who asked that his name not be used, said during a telephone interview that inmates in the provincial jail located west of Winnipeg are worried they might contract the novel coronavirus now that seven inmates and two corrections staff tested positive for it earlier this week.
"Everyone is freaking out," the inmate said. "As much as we all have made our choices of being in custody, adding COVID to the sentence makes it unknown.
"The only thing we know 110 per cent right now is seven inmates and two trade instructors have it. But you know that seven out of a unit with 44, do you think it will stop there? Not a chance.
"I don't want to die in jail."
Earlier this month, the province said a corrections officer tested positive for the virus and during Tuesday's news conference Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, said the outbreak was now seven inmates and two officers. Roussin said 150 inmates are self-isolating in the facility and it had been placed under "critical" code red pandemic response restrictions for a minimum of 14 days.
To combat further spread of the virus, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said admissions to Headingley and transfers of Headingley inmates to other facilities have been halted. As well, medical-grade personal protective equipment is being distributed to staff and any inmate who requests it and movement inside the facility has been restricted.
The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents correctional officers, said it is concerned for its members in the jail, while the John Howard Society said the controls put in place to prevent the spread of the virus at Headingley could lead to a greater risk of Winnipeg Remand Centre inmates contracting it because of overcrowding. A provincial official said currently there are 126 inmates at the remand centre and 379 beds.
A Justice spokeswoman said Thursday that a total of 154 inmates are now isolating from others at Headingley. The province’s Justice Department says the jail’s rated capacity is 594 inmates, though it has 890 beds. Currently 593 inmates are incarcerated at the facility.
"The safety of staff and inmates is a priority," she said. "Manitoba Justice is making every effort to contain the spread of the virus and ensure the facility is safe."
The province put in-person visits in correctional facilities on hold earlier this year because of the pandemic and now, with the outbreak, it has suspended visits by lawyers. Video interviews and phone contact is still allowed, but inmates who test positive and those who are considered symptomatic will not be permitted to attend video court because they are potentially contagious.
A provincial spokeswoman said besides the COVID-19 outbreak in Headingley, there are also two cases at Milner Ridge, one at the Winnipeg Remand Centre, and one at the Brandon Correctional Centre.
The girlfriend of the inmate the Free Press spoke with said that, until the virus outbreak was announced, not being allowed to visit in person had been the toughest part of his jail sentence.
"He's been in for a little over a year and we haven't got to visit for months," she said. "It has been hard cause we are close and always together when he's out here."
The inmate said the jail population has been told the first positive case was a corrections officer working with inmates in the facility's kitchen; the other cases are connected to that area, as well.
The inmate, who is set to be released around Christmas, said earlier in the pandemic there was talk that prisoners who were close to the end of their sentences would be released early to reduce the chance of contracting the virus.
"No one is saying that now," he said, adding it is difficult to isolate from other prisoners. Space is hard to come by in the jail, built in 1931.
"If anything, this is probably the worst place to be in the country for an outbreak," he said. "In my opinion, this is the smallest space-to-inmate population in the country. It is one of the oldest jails in Manitoba and it has the smallest space for inmates."
He said cells are little more than a metre-and-a-half wide by two metres in size, while other dorm-type accommodations in the jail have several inmates sleeping close to each other in a room.
"We cannot social distance," he said. "There's no way we can be six feet away from each other.
"That's a pipe dream."
Making matters worse, not all inmates in the facility are healthy, he said.
"The general population here is age 20 to mid-30s, but there are plenty of people with compromised immune systems by being diabetic or being a past drug addict."
He said he hasn't contracted the virus, but it is all the inmates are thinking about now.
"Everyone is on edge," he said. "This is not something we are brushing off."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.