In this three-part series on the COVID-19 outbreak at Headingley Correctional Centre, public criminologist Emily Gerbrandt discusses the multi-pronged indicators that prisons are not keeping us safe. Keeping provincial jails in operation is actually a major threat to our public safety. COVID-19 behind bars is not the start of problems with the prison system but rather magnifies the need for all of us to ask: have prisons ever kept us safe? First in the series, this article notes how by not containing the virus, Headingley has let a major public health threat seep further into our community.

For the sake of public safety, we need to #FreeThemAll - Part 1

Leaving inmates to die of COVID-19 in Headingley is the major public safety threat no one is talking about.

The ongoing problem of COVID outbreaks in prisons and jails(1) across Canada have led many prison administrators to implement long-needed reforms, including releasing many immunocompromised inmates and people serving non-violent sentences. Early in the pandemic, 618 people were released from Manitoba prisons and jails, or approximately one of every three inmates in the province, in hopes to lessen overcrowding and improve physical distancing.(2) But the growing outbreak at Headingley Correctional Centre indicates that current efforts to prevent the spread have not gone far enough. More creative approaches are needed to resolve the public safety threat posed by keeping prisons and jails in operation.

The failure of marginal prison release measures and current COVID-19 safety plans to stop the spread raises serious questions about whether or not prisons serve our needs. I want to focus here in this three-part series on what we believe the prison is doing to sustain public safety, and point out how keeping Headingley and other Manitoba prisons and jails in operation is actually causing a major public safety threat.

The threat of prisons and jails to our public safety can be broken down into three key indicators:

1. Counter to popular belief, the prison is not an isolated community. Rather, what happens in the prison has ripple effects on the surrounding community.

2. The prison has never been an effective measure of preventing, reducing, or deterring crime.

3. The COVID-19 outbreak in Headingley magnifies the longstanding need to think of public safety in more holistic terms.

The Situation at Headingley
Earlier this month, health officials in Manitoba declared a COVID-19 outbreak at Headingley Correctional Centre when 7 inmates and 2 staff tested positive.(3) As of Oct 21st, these numbers have nearly tripled to 3 staff and 29 inmates.(4) Although a provincial spokesperson told CBC News, “corrections had been making every effort to contain the spread of the virus and ensure the facility is safe” and that “all staff and inmates who may have been exposed have been placed in quarantine,”(5) inmates and family members have raised concerns that prison staff are not doing enough to stop the spread.

The partner of one inmate currently under quarantine in Headingley stated, “He’s very sick. I called there yesterday and expressed my concern [and] they brushed me off… he’s telling me they put his range on quarantine because they have symptoms, but they won’t test them.”

Headingley has reported approximately 200 of it’s 593 inmates are currently in quarantine. A spokesperson for the jail claims that “inmates needing to self-isolate have separate living locations.” Additional precautions such as increased physical restrictions and cleaning have reportedly been taken.(6)

Reports from inmates relative’s tell a different story. Said the same partner, “They’re telling the guys the symptoms are all in their head… they’re locking them down for 14 days with one 30-minute break and they’re not even doing their laundry or anything now.”

The province has kept in-person visits on hold since the pandemic began, but since the outbreak was declared, inmates under quarantine can no longer meet with their lawyers. Under international law, keeping inmates confined to their cell without access to human interaction or time outside is a violation of their human rights. As organizer with the Montreal Anti-Carceral Group, Ted Rutland, said in an interview for Briarpatch Magazine, prisons and jails are “dealing with the health crisis through torture.”(7)

Many jails across the country have already been rocked by outbreaks. Brampton jail was shut down earlier this year due to a massive coronavirus outbreak in which 91 inmates and 25 staff contracted the virus. The jail has yet to declare when it will reopen.(8) Inmates at the facility were transferred to Toronto South Detention Centre, a jail that has been the source of criticism for it’s inhumane conditions and treatment of inmates. In January of this year one judge declared that the Ontario government was engaging in ‘deliberate state misconduct’ because of the unlivable conditions for inmates at the Toronto jail.(9)

Spokespeople for Headingley also report that “Public Health and correctional nurses are monitoring the inmates daily, and offer them testing if any show symptoms.”(10) But testing  is not coming fast enough. “He said there’s 24 guys on his block and all of them are showing three to five symptoms of COVID” said the partner. “He also told me that the range where someone tested positive for COVID isn’t being tested until next week. They’re waiting a whole week to test a range full of guys who were living with someone who tested positive.”

Michelle Gawronsky, the President of the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union which represents provincial correctional staff said about the situation “it is disappointing to know that the government was not proactive in ensuring a very locked down facility such as a correctional institute in our province was not prepared and ready to go at a moment’s notice.”(11)

According to the latest CBC report, staff and inmates have also been given personal protective equipment (PPE). The union representing prison staff is also “requesting that management ensure that all of the correctional officers always have medical personal PPE with any interaction with any of the inmates within any of the jails across the province.”(12)

But these protocols cannot contend with the physical realities of being locked up at Headingley. "If anything, this is probably the worst place to be in the country for an outbreak," one inmate stated to Kevin Rollason for Winnipeg Free Press under the condition of anonymity. "It is one of the oldest jails in Manitoba and it has the smallest space for inmates." Many cells in Headingley are less than six feet wide, and many inmates are forced to live in dorm-type rooms with several other people. "We cannot social distance," the inmate  said. "There's no way we can be six feet away from each other… That’s a pipe dream.”(13)

COVID-19 behind bars puts us all at risk
The first indicator of the magnified threat of the prison to the public is the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. It’s not uncommon to hear people respond to COVID-19 outbreaks in prison with indifference. This often comes from the assumption that prisons are isolated settings and that the virus will not pass through the chain link fence. Not only are these arguments unconstitutionally and morally egregious given the fact that Canada abolished the death penalty some 50 years ago, but they are also factually incorrect. The prison is not a contained community, what happens in the prison has immediate and devastating ripple effects on the surrounding community.

Prison staff enter and exit the prison everyday and contribute directly to community spread. In the context of this pandemic, what happens in Headingley has immediate effects on all of our health and safety.

Registered nurse and prisoner rights advocate Martha Paynter stated in an interview for CTV news that outbreaks in Canadian jails puts the public at risk. Jails are “poised for both disease transmission within the facility and then taking it in and outside because everyday staff are coming in and out.”(14)

Inmates echo these concerns. “Even if prisoners try and keep their distance from one other, that’s impossible when it comes to the guards, who commute into the prison from their respective communities. They do not wear masks or gloves. They’re still patting us down; they’re still touching us,” Stuart Serson, an inmate at Pacific Institution in British Columbia said to Justin Ling for Vice, “Everything they touch, we touch.”(15)

Recalling Brampton jail, which was forced to shutter and transfer inmates to Toronto, failsafe plans based on transferring inmates only increase the public risk of community transmission. In the increasingly likely case that Headingley will be forced to shut down entirely, options for where inmates will go are limited and risky. Should inmates needing to quarantine be transferred to the Remand Centre, protocols would have to account for the fact that Downtown Winnipeg is currently one of the province’s largest hotbeds of community spread. Of the 1,645 active cases in Winnipeg at the time of writing, over 300 of them are located within the Downtown core, the highest concentration within city limits. Transferring infected and exposed inmates into Winnipeg only adds fire to a growing blaze.


Emily Gerbrandt (she/her/they) is a PhD student, public criminologist, and community organizer for anti-sexual violence and transformative justice initiatives. They work and live on Treaty 1 (Winnipeg) and Treaty 6 (Edmonton) land.


1 Prisons refer to federal correctional facilities in Manitoba that warehouse people sentenced to 2 years or more, such as Stoney Mountain. Jails, such as Headingley, are provincially run, and warehouse people who are serving sentences less than two years.

2 Kristin Annable May 7, 2020. Number of inmates in Manitoba jails drops by almost 30% in wake of COVID-19 pandemic. CBC News.

3 Carol Sanders. October 13, 2020. COVID outbreak declared at Headingley jail.

Winnipeg Free Press.

4 Danton Unger. October 21, 2020. More than 30 COVID-19 cases at Manitoba jail as outbreak nearly triples. CTV News.

5 Ibid, 4.

6 Ibid, 4.

7 Jon Milton. May 23, 2020. COVID-19 is raging through Quebec prisons. Briarpatch Magazine.

8 CBC News. April 20, 2020. Brampton jail shutting down after 60 inmates, 8 staff test positive for COVID-19.

9 Jacques Gallant. January 14, 2020. ‘Inhumane’ conditions at Toronto South Detention Centre amount to ‘deliberate state misconduct,’ judge says. Toronto Star.

10 Ibid, 4.

11 Ibid, 4.

12  Ibid, 4.

13 Kevin Rollason. October 15, 2020. ‘I don’t want to die in jail.’ Headingley inmate says everyone on edge after seven prisoners, two corrections officers test positive for COVID-19. Winnipeg Free Press.

14 Touria Izri. October 22, 2020. Anxiety builds for family members of Headingley inmates as outbreak grows. CTV News.

15 Justin Ling (March 27, 2020). Canada's Prisons Are a Coronavirus Time Bomb, Say Guards and Inmates. Vice News.