Prisons Are A Pandemic

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

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. At the same time provincial jails released inmates as a COVID-19 safety measure, violent and property crime decreased. The second installment in this three-part series illuminates how the prison has never kept us safe from crime.


On March 27, 2020 72-year old Robert Langevin, filed a complaint()1 against the Bordeaux jail in Montreal, asking for early release due to a spreading COVID-19 outbreak. Robert used a breathing mask, and was high risk for contracting COVID-19. He wrote “I don’t want to die here, I am an urgent case, I am a human, I have rights, I am vulnerable and I could die here, this is not human.”(2) A few days later, Robert died of COVID-19 behind bars.

“This is the first person to die of COVID-19 in a provincial prison. It is very possible that he won’t be the last,” Lucie Lemonde, a spokesperson for the Ligue des droits et libertés (League of Rights and Freedoms), wrote. “Since the start of the crisis, we have repeated without break that the only solution to counter the propagation and avoid a human catastrophe inside prisons is to reduce the incarcerated population, notably by releasing the oldest detainees.”(3)

COVID-19 and the Carceral System
Data collected by CBC News on infection rates behind bars suggests that inmates in provincial jails are five times more likely to contract the virus than the general population and inmates in federal prisons are nine times more likely.(4)

“Prisons were a ticking time bomb for the spread of the virus” states investigative journalist and author Justin Ling.(5) But despite the cautionary tale we see from Brampton and Bordeaux, no one stopped the pin from being pulled at Headingley Correctional Centre in Manitoba.

The failure of current COVID-19 safety plans to stop the outbreak at Headingley raises serious questions about whether or not prisons serve our needs. This three part series considers 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, the second of which this article explores:

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.

Failure to Comply

Any COVID safety plan is only as good as efforts by administrators to properly implement it, and Headingley does not have a shining record when it comes to prioritizing inmate safety. From its inception, Headingley holds a storied history of prisoner riots because of inhumane living conditions, including multiple times when administrators provided inmates with inedible and rotten food and withheld life-sustaining medical care.(6) Overcrowding, medical neglect, and daily violations to inmates' human rights by staff are all problems as old as Headingley itself.

Even if we could overlook the physical impossibilities to socially distance in Headingley’s less than 6 feet wide, dorm-style cells and the jail’s neglectful track record, inmates are still not in the clear. Additional problems arise when prison staff have failed to comply with recommended safety protocols, which has been a pattern of behaviour within provincial jails across the country.

Numerous stories report that prison staff have the discretion to withhold necessary PPE from inmates.

Donna MacKay, whose partner is in the federally-run Gravenhurst Institution in Ontario said to Justin Ling for Vice News, “there’s absolutely no hand sanitizer for the inmates… They all tell me that the guards have hand sanitizer but that the inmates aren't allowed to use it.” She continues, “they don't have soap to wash their hands with, and they're told to use the shampoo that they buy themselves from the canteen.”(7)  But shampoo and soap can cost about four to five times the market price at the nearest grocery store.

Spokespeople for Headingley promise they are taking every precaution to contain the outbreak and keep inmates and staff healthy. These declarations fall flat in the evidence of the jail engaging in long-standing human rights violations, and the grim reality that current safety protocols cannot be properly implemented in Headingley’s tight quarters.

Instead of listening to calls from inmates, relatives, and the public for the provincial government to do more to contain the outbreak, provincial spokespeople have defended their handling of the outbreak. Justice Minister Cliff Cullen responded to these criticisms as “misleading” and “inflammatory.”(8)

Criticisms of current safety protocols are warranted as positive cases rise and the current safety plan amounts to torturous living conditions for inmates.(9) It is due time we ask ourselves: if prisons and jails cannot even carry out their legally mandated job to keep inmates safe while they serve their sentence, how can they meet their obligation to keep the public safe?

Prisons do not make us safe from crime

Contrary to popular sentiments, prisons do not make us safer. The first part in this three part series noted how public health risks behind prison walls have ripple effects on the surrounding community. The second indicator of the threat of prisons to the public comes from evidence that prisons have neither a deterring nor preventative effect on the prevalence or severity of crime.

The most compelling statistics on the prison’s influence on public safety come from comparing prison population numbers and police-reported crime data. 618 people, making up approximately 30% of Manitoba’s provincially incarcerated population, were released from jail earlier this year.(10) Nationally, approximately 25% of Canada’s prison population were released at an ‘unprecedented’ rate of decline between February and April according to Statistics Canada.(11) During this same period, police-reported crime rates across the country decreased.

Statistics Canada data compiled from 17 police services, of which Winnipeg Police Service and RCMP are included, found that property and violent crimes were less prevalent from March to June 2020 in comparison to March to June in 2019. This includes assault, sexual assault, break and entry, robbery, shoplifting, impaired driving, motor vehicle theft, and fraud.(12) These statistics run in direct opposition to claims that prisons protect us from crime.  

Many criminologists and prison researchers are the first to attest that the rising rates of incarceration over the last five decades have occurred independently of police-reported crime.(13) In other words, the prevalence of crime and crime severity is consistently trending downwards, yet we are locking more and more people behind bars, and these two occurrences have very little to do with one another. We are no safer because of the exponential increase in mass incarceration. If anything, putting people behind bars makes us less safe.

Objecters may explain away these trends because of unique circumstances of COVID-19 or because the swell of inmates released as a precautionary measure in light of COVID-19 are typically older and people who were sentenced for non-violent offenses. But prison and crime researchers have consistently found that other factors influence whether or not crime occurs significantly more than whether or not people convicted of crimes are put in prison.(14) Factors that are consistently found to increase crime rates, such as poverty, over-policing, hypersurveillance, addiction, racial discrimination, food insecurity, and lack of access to affordable housing are all made worse by incarceration.(15)

What’s more, many victims of crime are not better off because of the prison. Notable Canadian criminologist Laureen Snider has remarked about the use of imprisonment to respond to domestic and gender-based violence, “the one undisputed reality of incarceration is that it makes those subjected to it more bitter, resentful, misogynous, and significantly less employable.”(16)

Although putting people in prison may satisfy an idealistic desire by the public in seeing retribution, it does not provide substantive value to the lives of many victims, it does not repair the harm people have caused, and it does not promise to prevent future harms. If anything, imprisonment begets more harm: to the inmate, the victim, and society writ large. None of the circumstances the prison provides us will better the life chances for people convicted of crimes, and it certainly does not serve our public interest in building safer and more equitable communities.

The prison does not produce public safety, but actually reproduces the conditions that lead to crime. In doing so, the prison works in service of itself, against our public safety, by contributing to the conditions that give rise to crime, and thereby cementing the perceived need for prisons in the first place. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle used to justify locking people up. We, the community, pay the price through our tax dollars, our victimization, and our criminalization.

If at the same time that Manitoba released inmates at an unprecedented scale, police-reported violent and property crime decreased, what is the prison actually protecting us from? Prisons do not make us safer, they actually have very little to do with increasing public safety at all. On the contrary, we can find a number of ways the prison poses a massive public safety threat to everyone.

Now more than ever, we need to rethink what we mean when we talk about public safety and to include more holistic public health concerns within our definition of the term.


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 Robert Langevin’s complaint from Ted Rutland on Twitter, May 21, 2020.

2 Ibid, 1. Jon Milton. May 23, 2020. COVID-19 is raging through Quebec prisons. Briarpatch Magazine.

3 Ibid, 2.

4 Valérie Ouellet & Joseph Loiero. July 17, 2020. COVID-19 taking a toll in prisons, with high infection rates, CBC News analysis shows. CBC News.

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

6 Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land & James Wilt. July 2, 2020. Prison Unionism. Briarpatch Magazine.

7 Ibid, 5.

8 Ian Froese. October 26, 2020. CBC News. Manitoba defends handling of COVID-19 in jails after 45 positive tests.

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

10 Ben Cousins. August 12, 2020. Provincial jails released thousands of inmates amid calls to slow the spread of COVID-19. CTV News.

11 Statistics Canada. August 12, 2020. Changes in federal, provincial and territorial custodial populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, April 2019 to April 2020.

12 Statistics Canada. September 1, 2020. Police-reported crime incidents down during the early months of the pandemic, while domestic disturbance calls increase.

13 Michelle Alexander. 2012 The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness. New Press. New York.

David Garland. 1996. The Limits of the Sovereign State: Strategies of Crime Control in Contemporary Society. British Journal of Criminology. (36)4, pp. 445-471.

14 Doris Layton Mackenzie. 2001. Sentencing and Corrections in the 21st Century: Setting the Stage for the Future.

15 Ibid, 12.

Robyn Maynard. 2017 Policing Black Lives. Fernwood Publishing. Winnipeg.

Wellesley Institute. 2015. First Peoples, Second Class Treatment. The role of racism in the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

16 Laureen Snider. 2008. Criminalising violence against women: Solution or dead end? Criminal Justice Matters, 74(1), p. 39.,