Amid an outbreak of nearly 100 COVID-19 cases at a Manitoba jail, one Headingley Correctional Centre inmate who tested positive for the virus says infected inmates are being treated like animals.
"They're treating us like we're sick animals," said 27-year-old James Pottinger, who is serving a sentence of two years less a day for firearms offences. "They're just throwing us in a cell with nothing and not even trying to help us at all."
Pottinger is raising concerns about delays in testing that he says failed to curtail the outbreak before his whole cell block was sick. He said he started feeling ill two weeks before he was tested for COVID-19; he received his positive result Oct. 28 and has been in isolation since then. Before that, he said jail guards told him there were no COVID-19 cases on his unit and that the illness was all in his head.
"They were just not taking us seriously," he said.
"I think there's 28 guys on the block, and every one of us had symptoms and we were all trying to tell them."
He spoke to the Free Press over the phone during one of his 30-minute daily breaks; the rest of the time, he's in 14-day isolation in a cell without any personal items or reading material.
As of Monday, there were 95 COVID-19 cases at Headingley: 21 among staff and 74 among inmates, Manitoba Justice said. The department said there were 82 active cases and 13 people had recovered.
It's the largest outbreak in a Manitoba jail; about 13 per cent of Headingley's roughly 550 inmates have tested positive. Since the outbreak began, there have been 130 cases in provincial jails. In response to a Free Press inquiry about the number of correctional staff and inmates who have been tested, the department said it did not have testing data.
Pottinger's wife, Ashley Fall, said she could hear him struggling to breathe over the phone two weeks ago, and repeatedly called the jail to ask why he had not yet been tested.
"What's happening to people who don't have someone going to bat for them?" she asked.
The province said inmates who don't have symptoms are equipped with cloth masks that are washed daily, and that those with symptoms have surgical masks. Pottinger said before he was tested, he and other inmates were given masks made out of bedsheets and elastic bands that inmates in another area of the jail had created. He said he has been wearing the same mask for more than four days.
Pottinger said he is starting to feel better roughly three weeks after having headaches, trouble breathing, and loss of smell and taste. He said a nurse walks by the door of his isolation cell every day, and he's expected to give a thumbs-up to indicate he is OK. Although Manitoba Justice said in a statement that things such as games, magazines and art supplies have been purchased for inmates in isolation, Pottinger said he has not been allowed access to any such items.
Another Headingley inmate, who asked that his name not be published, mailed a letter to the Free Press. He said the inability of inmates to physically distance themselves, visit with family or friends, attend programming or use the exercise yard "is wreaking havoc on our physical and mental health."
"Although there are individuals who must pay their debt back to society before they are released, we are starting to wonder where the line will be drawn when it comes to our rights as an incarcerated Canadian citizen during this pandemic," he wrote.
In its statement, the province said: "Manitoba Justice understands the strain that COVID-19 is putting on inmates and their families, and to aid in this centres have purchased leisure products for the isolated units which include games, magazines, movies, art supplies and handheld electronic gaming devices. These items have been purchased with the profits from inmate canteen. Those in custody have also been able to purchase large volumes of personal calling at a reduced rate."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.