Families say inmates at Manitoba jail feel punished after being put in solitary confinement due to COVID-19

Correctional facilities in Manitoba continue to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks, and families and advocates are criticizing the province’s response to contain the virus.

The mother of an Ojibway inmate at Headingley Correctional Centre is speaking out about the conditions inmates face after her son was put into what she describes as “the hole” or solitary confinement after he tested positive with the virus earlier this month.

“It hurts to see my own flesh and blood, my own son treated in that manner just because he had to reach out for help,” said Sheila Yellowquill.

Yellowquill told APTN News her son started exhibiting symptoms of the virus last month.

When he requested testing for himself and the inmates in his block she said staff rejected his request.

The family emailed a complaint to the Manitoba Ombudsman on Nov. 1 stating 14 out of the 17 inmates in the dorm were experiencing symptoms.

“We are asking for massive testing on this floor and it is viable to keep us in this one area,” the complaint reads. “Can you please follow up with the Superintendent? The [Correctional Officers] here ignore any verbal requests from

“We are being denied as well by the nurse here.”

Shortly after Yellowquill’s son tested positive and was put into solitary confinement.

Yellowquill said her son and one other inmate who tested positive were put into solitary confinement. She believes this was done to punish her son for speaking out.

“Segregation isn’t the answer because it’s a form of punishment,” said Yellowquill.

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During her son’s confinement Yellowquill said he was only allowed out for half and hour a day to shower and make a phone call.

She adds inmates were not given anything to occupy their time such as books, magazines or access to a radio or television.

This response is not limited to Manitoba, according to advocates.

Quinn Saretsky, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Manitoba, told APTN she’s heard of other instances where this tactic was used.

Inmates at the Calgary Correctional Centre also spoke out last month about being put in solitary confinement after COVID-19 spread through the facility.

“The consideration for people’s mental wellness has just totally been thrown out of the window,” said Saretsky.

The use of solitary confinement has been described as a form of torture by advocates. It is generally reserved for disobedient inmates.

Saretsky said putting individuals in that kind of environment can have traumatic effects, especially when that individual is dealing with health concerns relating to COVID-19.

“Segregation is a really inhumane practice when we’re not sick so to be segregating those people in those kind of conditions when they’re experiencing the level of illness,” said Saretsky. “It’s very concerning, and there’s definitely better alternatives that we could utilize to support people that are experiencing this type of illness.”

The Elizabeth Fry Society of Manitoba, along with other local advocacy groups in Manitoba, released a letter last week calling for the release of individuals on remand who do not pose an immediate risk to the public, those who are susceptible to severe health outcomes and all youth to address the overcrowding in the correctional facilities with hopes of slowing the spread.

They have also called for the province to work with existing community programs to ensure those released have the appropriate supports.

A spokesperson with the province confirmed inmates who test positive are isolated but would not say whether solitary confinement is used.

“Just as within the community, anyone in a provincial correctional facility who tests positive for COVID-19 is required to self-isolate and each centre has appropriate, designated isolation areas,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to APTN.

“All centres have created and are utilizing plans and procedures to isolate and provide care to the individuals who may require it.”

They added the centres have purchased leisure products, which include games, magazines, movies, art supplies for entertainment purposes for inmates isolating, despite families saying otherwise.

Nahanni Fontaine, justice critic for the Manitoba NDP, said the province’s response so far is unacceptable.

“In any other sphere of society, so a hospital or a personal care home or a school, that would mobilize the government and health professionals to start organizing and try and mitigate the further transmission,” she said.

“We’ve heard nothing.”

Fontaine has called for the province to assign an independent investigator to witness the conditions at Headingley and report back, “send folks that understand the system and provide those recommendations on what the government can do immediately.”

As of Tuesday Nov. 17 there have been 218 cases at Headingley with 179 being inmates. There are currently 86 active cases.

All seven of the provincially run correctional facilities have active cases.

Stony Mountain Institution, which is federally run, is also dealing with an outbreak with 30 active cases.

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