Manitoba is facing catastrophic levels of COVID-19 transmission, with over 1,100 new cases in only the last three days and a provincial test positivity rate nearing a horrifying nine percent (by comparison, the United States is facing a national positivity rate of 7.1 percent).
Headingley Correctional Centre, a provincial jail on the western edge of Winnipeg, is among the sites hardest hit by the pandemic. As of Friday, October 30, the jail had 69 confirmed cases—mostly prisoners along with a handful of staff. The jail has been notoriously overcrowded for many years, currently incarcerating 593 people in a facility designed for 549 people at most.
Unsurprisingly, this seriously impedes the ability to limit transmission risk with social distancing and self-isolation. The situation inside is dire, with a prisoner recently telling the Winnipeg Free Press that the jail is in “complete outbreak” and “the entire jail is locked down.” On Sunday, the province also declared an outbreak at the nearby women’s correctional centre.
This entirely predictable outcome follows major outbreaks at other carceral institutions across Canada, including Quebec’s Federal Training Centre and Joliette Institution, British Columbia’s Mission Institution, and the Calgary Correctional Centre.
Yet Manitoba has continued to ignore calls by community activists to rapidly decarcerate in order to protect prisoners from serious sickness and death (three-quarters of adults incarcerated in Manitoba are Indigenous). Meanwhile, the jail is failing to conduct widespread testing.
Canadian Dimension spoke with someone whose husband is incarcerated in Headingley. After a major bout of sickness, he was finally diagnosed with COVID-19.
Both the person who we spoke with and her husband have been granted anonymity to protect him from potential backlash for speaking out.
What’s the latest on what you’ve heard about your husband’s condition?
I didn’t talk to him for two days. He couldn’t call me and then finally, today, he called me and told me he tested positive for COVID. Originally, he was super sick for a long time and they kept telling him it was all in his head, and that he wasn’t sick.
I called the jail like three times and went off on them and said: “He’s really sick. I’ve known him four years, and he’s never been sick once. His sister has known him his whole life and can’t even remember one time he’s been sick. He doesn’t get sick and I’m literally talking to him on the phone every day—and he can’t get out more than three words without having trouble breathing. His breath is so shallow. You guys need to test him.”
I had to call three times and go like that, but a little bit more angry. Then they finally just tested him on Monday. This has been 10 days, already, that I’ve had to call and been getting mad at them. Finally, they acknowledged that maybe he’s sick, so they locked his whole range down and only let them have two breaks a day for 30 minutes. That was on Thursday. And then they told him they were going to test him on Monday. They tested him on Monday, and now it came back that he’s positive.
Why did I have to go through all of that just for him to get tested when he says he’s sick? His sister called too. We all had to call. I reached out to a legal assistant who I know, and she spoke to a lawyer who contacted some legal defence people for prisoners. They asked me for his exact name and where he is, and all that stuff. They reached out and sent emails too.
What about people who don’t have someone like me who’s going to go crazy and reach out to all these people and try to make sure something gets done?
What’s happened since he tested positive?
He tested positive and they took him from where he was, and they put him in the basement in a cell by himself. They won’t let him have anything. He can’t have his radio, he can’t have a pen and paper, he can’t have a book. He’s literally sitting in a room, by himself, in the dark for 14 days. He gets one break a day where he can either call me twice or call me and take a shower. And that’s it.
Who can live like that? Anybody will go mentally insane. They’re saying that he can’t have his stuff because it’s contaminated, because he’s sick. He said, “well can I just buy new stuff?” And they said, “no, you can’t buy new stuff either.”
Has he received medical attention? Is there anyone checking in on him?
He said that there’s a nurse that walks down the hallway maybe three times a day. And all she does is look in your room and ask “are you feeling OK?” and gives you a thumbs up and keeps it moving. They don’t actually check on you.
He said they literally won’t even give him a Tylenol. He can’t even get Tylenol. What the guys do when they’re on the range when they’re feeling sick—because the jails don’t give them medicine or anything like that—is buy Halls through the canteen, they crush them up, and they add a little bit of hot water and almost have a cough syrup from it. You can’t even do that because they won’t let him have anything.
He literally has nothing. They won’t even give him Tylenol.
Have you contacted the jail since?
I haven’t—because I didn’t know he was positive. I didn’t hear from him for the last two days. Basically, when he became positive, then they did that and he didn’t have any breaks until today.
I assume that’s unusual, that he wouldn’t contact you?
Oh yeah, he calls me multiple times every day. Now, it’s only when he has his breaks.
The company that does the phone calls: normally, one phone call is $3.75 for 15 minutes, which is a whole issue all on its own. Right now, because of COVID, they did these call packages where you can buy a certain amount of calls and then it’s cheaper. It ends up being like a dollar a call or something like that. But the call packages are only good for 30 days. I actually need to call them now and see if they will give us an extension because he has 90 phone calls, and he’s only allowed to make one phone call a day.
Usually, if he doesn’t call me for one full day, then the next day halfway through if I don’t hear from him I’ll call the jail and ask what’s going on. They do that a lot where they lock down the whole range if they feel like it, and they don’t give them breaks, which is taking away their rights as it is. And then if I don’t hear from him for a day-and-a-half I call them and start asking questions, and they start to say “oh, well maybe he just decided not to call you.” I’m like, “no, I’m sorry but even if we hate each other he still calls me. That’s not a thing. You’re taking away his rights and you have a half-hour for me to hear from him or I’m contacting the ombudsman and his lawyers. This is ridiculous.” And then all of a sudden he calls me.
It’s ridiculous. Like I said, I always feel sad because there’s people who don’t have someone like me.
What do you think could or should be done to make sure your husband is receiving the proper care he needs?
I definitely feel like he should be more looked at, not just a nurse walking up and down the hall giving a thumbs up. How is she going to know from that? I also feel like—not him specifically but other people—might just fake that they’re feeling OK because they want to get the hell out of that isolation. They probably don’t want to lead on that they’re feeling more sick than they are because they don’t want to be sitting in a room by themselves for more days than necessary.
That’s something I don’t understand either. If I test positive today, I’m still at home with all my stuff. I still get to watch TV and have my phone and listen to the radio. Take some Lysol wipes and clean his radio and give it to him! It’s not that hard.
They have a fogger that they were using on the ranges up until this point: they would walk through the range and fog everything quickly. It would take them like five minutes and that was supposed to be cleaning everything or whatever. Clean their items and give them to them because I’m more concerned about his mental health right now that I am his COVID health. 14 days in a dark room by yourself is not going to be OK for your mental health. For anybody.
At least now he’s tested positive, we know. Maybe they’ll pay more attention and not try to tell him it’s all in his head.
Is there anything you want to add, that you’d like people to know?
Guys are testing positive and are not being treated properly at all. Even before he tested positive, the guys were aware that this is what was going to happen to them. A lot of guys are trying to hide that they’re sick because they don’t want to end up in a dark room for 14 days by themselves. Which is making it worse.
Their solution to testing positive is not making it better. It’s making it worse. Because the guys know what their punishment is. And they don’t want it. So they’re trying to hide it.
I made a [social media] status about it because I’m so mad. Someone’s like “if you do the crime, you do the time.” I’m like, “no, I’m calling the jail, I’m calling the ombudsman, I’m calling the minister of justice, I don’t care who I have to call. This isn’t OK.”
Just because you do a crime and you’re in jail, you still have human rights.
James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.