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. More holistic approaches to public safety based on the principles of community care that already exist within our communities act as a model for how we can address the threat of prisons. The third and final installment in this three-part series sets the call to #FreeThemAll in action by highlighting how community care projects already in motion can align with the mission to depopulate prisons to create safer, and more equitable communities.


Prisons are a Pandemic
Matthew Shorting, the brother of an inmate in Headingley said to CTV, “People who are in prison, they almost get dehumanized behind labels... they still have a brother. (My brother) still has a partner, he still has children.”(1)

Manitoba NDP Critic for Justice, Nahanni Fontaine has raised alarm about the province’s handling of the outbreak and says she doesn't really feel like there is any plan in place to help protect people like Matthew’s brother. "There was no mention of any additional supports for correctional facilities. There was no mention on what is this comprehensive plan that the minister of justice keeps talking about.”(2)

According to Dr. Jazz Atwal, a provincial medical officer of health, current protocols require every inmate to stay in a 14-day quarantine at the Remand Centre to keep the virus out of its correctional centres. But the COVID-19 outbreak in Headingley did not come from an inmate, it entered through prison staff. Calls for more PPE and medical safety mandates from union representatives for prison staff were met by provincial spokespeople for the jail with defensiveness earlier this week. Justice Minister Cliff Cullen called these concerns that the province isn't doing enough “misleading” and “inflammatory.”(3)

NDP Justice Critic Fontaine says she has spoken with two family members whose brother is currently in Headingley. When he and seven others started to get sick, they were tested but “they were not isolated, they were sent back into general pop."(4) General population holds many inmates in dorm-style cells, making physical distancing impossible. This story echoes many others we have heard from inmates and family members about the jail not implementing their promised safety mandates.(5)

The failure to contain the Headingley outbreak 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 third and final is explored in this article:

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.

I implore us to view public safety in more holistic terms than its common reduction to crime and punishment. If we have learned anything in the last seven months, it is that our public safety is not secured through individualized approaches to deterrence and retroactive carceral responses, but through social approaches to community care and compassion.  

The growing movements to defund and abolish the police have made visible the long-standing fact that public safety is not secured through adding more cops and cameras on our street corners. In the same breath, part two of this three-part series noted the many ways that prisons do not protect us from being the victim of crime. The only sure way we can increase our safety is by departing from limited, fear-mongering, and implicitly racist ideas of what, and who, threatens our safety.

Longstanding evidence to the contrary of these myths should make us immediately divest from the narrative that punishing people by locking them up makes us safe. Instead, we need to throw our weight behind social approaches to community care and compassion that, thankfully, have already been created and are working to serve us and our communities, whether we realize it or not.

Take for instance Winnipeg’s Mutual Aid Society, a community-organized mutual aid network that has come to the ready to help people who are doing the work to help one another in light of the economic fallouts of our provincial mishandling of COVID-19 affecting many people on Treaty 1 and across the province. Whether it’s by cooking meals, delivering groceries, or donating gently used goods to one another, we have readily witnessed our communities come together to keep from falling into homelessness and provided a safety net for many struggling to get through this difficult time. If we applied a similar lens of compassion and care to people behind bars, creative and manageable solutions to the public safety threat of our prisons and jails are not hard to imagine.

In fact, many people have already gotten together to do the hard work of building support networks for inmates. We can look to the work of local prison abolitionist group Bar None and their prison rideshare program, providing an affordable option for families and friends to visit their loved ones in prisons and jails (when visitation was still permitted). Women’s Prison Network prints newsletters for inmates across the province, and has a long list of sources where the public can access writing, poetry, and artwork from people behind bars. Their resource lists online are great places to identify book and resource donation programs that depend on our support.(6)  

The ongoing advocacy work of Saskatchewan Manitoba Alberta Abolition Coalition (SMAAC) and of Free Lands, Free People, who raised and distributed over $48,000 for prisoners and people recently released so they can secure necessary protective equipment and supplies to fight off COVID-19 are inventive and immediate models of community care that directly benefit all of our safety by reducing the chance of contracting and transmitting COVID-19.(7)

What can we do?

Including keeping the pressure on provincial and federal representatives to depopulate prisons and jails, there are very clear steps we can all take to reduce, and even eliminate the public safety threat of locking people up.

Most immediately, we need to support inmates' attempts to secure protective equipment by supporting prisoner funds and family members who need financial support to pay for their loved one’s phone calls and supplies. Part of this is also putting pressure on governments and prison administrators to implement safe visitation protocols and free means of communication with legal representation.

More broadly, we must continue to push for the depopulation of prisons. Recently, the movement to abolish prisons has gained major endorsements from the American Public Health Authority,(8) and by hundreds of Canadian nurses.(9) A recent Angus Reid survey indicates 2 out of every 3 Canadians support defunding the police and reallocating resources to social welfare services in over-policed neighbourhoods.(10) The joint call for abolition of police and prisons is as old as the institutions themselves.(11) It has always only been a matter of time before we all collectively wake up to the fact that the costs of incarceration outweigh the perceived rewards to society.

In Manitoba, we can immediately invest energy in the missions to #FreeThemAll that are already in motion by pushing for the release of inmates sentenced for ill-defined ‘administration of justice’ offenses, which make up over one third of people in Manitoba custody. Administration of justice offenses are a major part of the reason the province outstripped the rest of the country in rising incarceration rates over the last decade. These offenses enter people into custody for minor administrative reasons, like breaching their probation, failing to appear in court, or failing to comply with court orders. None of these offenses on their own cause public harm, and are not justifiable reasons to allow someone to die of COVID-19 behind bars. We also must seriously push for the decarceration of people sentenced to custody for cannabis possession, and the full decriminalization of drugs. It does not serve any community’s interests to prosecute people because they use drugs or live with addictions.

Further, we all need to do our part to stop the intake of people into custody, which means not calling the cops for non-emergencies. This includes not calling the police when we witness public intoxication or other ‘public disturbances.’ Part of this process is evaluating the difference between our personal discomfort and actual harm. As we have seen across the country and in our own backyards, calling the police has devastating consequences for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour who are far more likely to experience police violence and criminalization for everyday behaviors that white people do freely and without police intervention. Resources have been compiled by prison abolitionist group’s like Bar None and by Manitoba’s Harm Reduction Network on community alternatives to calling the cops that can be easily accessed and shared with our communities.(12) Community Health organizations, including Nine Circles, regularly offer free naloxone training to the public, which quite literally is a life-saving skill we can all learn in a day.

Whether or not you agree that prison’s fundamentally do not keep any of us safe, it is clear that prisons are not doing what they are supposed to do: that is, upholding the constitutional rights and wellbeing of inmates as they complete their sentences. If you believe in the need for prisons as a mechanism for public safety and upholding justice, all evidence points to the prison failing you on this accord. If you believe, as I do, that prisons are currently poised as a massive public safety threat and that we need to #FreeThemAll, I implore you to continue to advocate for those behind bars and seek out alternative models of conflict resolution, de-escalation, and community care that already exist in your community. Contribute your time and money to them, and implement their lessons and practices into your personal life and the communities you are part of. Taking care of each other is not a radical notion. Extending this to the people society has dehumanized behind bars could go a long way to improving public safety for everyone.

Bio: 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.


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

2 Devon McKendrick. October 26, 2020. Concerns of COVID-19 in jails continues to rise as government tries to address problem. CTV News.

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

4 Ibid, 3.

5 See part 1 and 2 of this story series.

6 Women’s Prison Network.

7 James Wilt. June 17, 2020. Fighting for prison abolition across the Prairies: An interview with Free Lands Free Peoples organizer Karrie Auger. Canadian Dimension.

8 Advancing Public Health Interventions to Address the Harms of the Carceral System.

9 Letter from Nurses for Police and Prison Abolition.

10 Angus Reid. October 26, 2020. Defend or Defund? One-in-four support cutting local police budgets; most back social welfare over hiring more cops.

11 Angela Davis. 2003. Are prisons obsolete? Seven Stories Press. New York.

12 Manitoba Harm Reduction Network Community Projects.