Inmate fears 'it's only a matter of time' before Headingley COVID-19 outbreak spikes

Men locked up at a Manitoba jail in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak are growing increasingly anxious about how bad things could get, an inmate says.

7 inmates, 2 staff recently tested positive at provincial jail amid surge in Manitoba COVID-19 cases

RCMP say one inmate was caught while trying to escape and another was arrested after running away from the Headingley Correctional Centre and swimming across the Assiniboine River. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Men locked up at a Manitoba jail in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak are growing increasingly anxious about how bad things could get, an inmate says.

Over 150 Headingley Correctional Centre inmates are self-isolating after nine people, including inmates and staff, recently tested positive.

"A lot of guys are kind of freaked out," says Lewis Pompana, who is incarcerated at Headingley just west Winnipeg.

"It's crazy to be locked up in a place that you have no escape from. If one of us catches [it] in any single unit, it's only a matter of time before we all catch it. It's a domino effect."

Manitoba COVID-19 cases are on the rise, with the majority of new cases in Winnipeg. Care homes are among the hardest hit.

Manitoba's chief public health officer confirmed over the weekend that staff at Headingley, Milner Ridge Correctional Centre and the Winnipeg Remand Centre have tested positive.

Seven inmates and two staff tested positive at Headingley, which was then moved to "red," or critical, on the provincial pandemic response system. That total hadn't changed as of Thursday, according to Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin.

A provincial corrections spokesperson said Thursday 154 inmates are now isolating from the rest in separate units, up from a total of 150 people earlier this week.

"All staff and inmates who may have been exposed have been placed in quarantine," a statement from the province reads. "The safety of staff and inmates is a priority. Manitoba Justice is making every effort to contain the spread of the virus."

Inmates are isolating in vacant housing units on the grounds, older cell blocks, vacant dorms and some modern living units, according to a provincial spokesperson. Movements have also been restricted internally and cleaning has been enhanced, the spokesperson said.

Shots of the prison in Headingley... Sunday, April 19, 2020 (Travis Golby/CBC)

Manitoba's justice minister said earlier this week inmates have been provided medical-grade personal protective equipment.

Visits, transfers and new admissions are currently suspended at Headingley, but Pompana questions whether that will keep inmates safe.

Hard to eliminate risk, inmate says

Overcrowding has been an issue in Manitoba provincial jails for years.

Earlier in the week, a provincial corrections spokesperson said there were 611 people incarcerated at Headingley, 11% above its capacity of 549 inmates.

On Thursday, the spokesperson said there were 593 inmates at Headingley — 18 fewer than days before. A spokesperson for the province said the drop in custody count may be attributed to individuals who have been released on bail or whose sentences have expired.  

Fearing outbreaks in imprisoned populations, nearly 30 per cent of Manitoba inmates were released early in the pandemic to improve physical distancing. 

Various other restrictions were imposed at provincial jails early on, including reducing or eliminating recreational time or in communal areas. Some of those options were gradually phased back at Headingley, with restrictions, as COVID-19 numbers declined, said Pompana.

"It's literally impossible to … take a bunch of guys out of the unit and have them self-isolate away from each other. There's just no room," he said.

"The way I described it to my family is, imagine being in a bingo hall, a big room … or a very, very large living room with bunk beds along the wall, and that's your dorm. How do you get away from each other? You can't."

Amid the ongoing anxiety, Pompana said the suspension of visits is weighing on him. His daughter's birthday is coming up, and he won't be able to see her.

"I'm really upset," he said. "Had this pandemic not been around, she would've been able to come see me.

"It's a terrible place to be, and there's never any visits, there's no social distancing. This is the worst-case scenario for anyone in the entire country to be in, being stuck in here."

With files from Sarah Petz