Inmates at Manitoba’s largest jail have been likened to “sitting ducks,” as a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases fuels concerns about a staffing shortage and crowding.

Inmates at Manitoba’s largest jail have been likened to "sitting ducks," as a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases fuels concerns about a staffing shortage and crowding.

Headingley Correctional Centre has the highest number of active cases of any provincial jail, with infections jumping to 100 from 55 in less than a week.

An inmate told the Free Press several units have been closed or locked down as the novel coronavirus spreads rapidly.

Dorms have become crowded as inmates are moved in from shuttered units, said the man, who fears it’s only a matter of time before he catches COVID.

"They’re shoving everybody closer together amid this outbreak. They’re double-bunking us," said the inmate, who asked not to be named because he feared reprisals. "They shouldn’t be moving people around. They should social distance everybody and not pack everybody (in)."

One dorm normally occupied by 14 people now has 28, he said, while another has 26.

Officers have told inmates a shortage of staff has forced the jail, west of Winnipeg, to close some units, he said.

Cases at Headingley have soared amid a fourth wave fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant, which has overwhelmed hospitals and public services.

The jail had 100 active cases, as of Monday, up from 85 on Jan. 14 and 55 on Jan. 12, according to the province’s online dashboard. The Free Press reported a total of 34 on Jan. 7.

An outbreak was also reported at Milner Ridge Correctional Centre, southwest of Lac du Bonnet. It had 85 active cases Monday, an increase of eight since Jan. 14.

Headingley’s inmate population was 520 on Friday. The men’s jail, which has minimum, medium and maximum security areas, has an official capacity of 549.

It’s not the first time cases have spiked. The province declared outbreaks at Headingley in October 2020 and January 2021.

Amid the latest increase, the inmate said his unit was put on "COVID lockdown," after a man with symptoms was transferred from a unit affected by the virus.

"Everybody is coming down with symptoms," he said. "People in here have underlying health conditions. COVID could take them out, and that’s a big fear for them. This is going to get worse."

COVID-positive inmates are now in general population, the man said, because solitary confinement became full with infected inmates.

He alleged the kitchen and trades units were locked down, and one of two units occupied by the Winding River Therapeutic Community, which offers help for addictions, was closed.

Visits have been put on hold, said the man’s partner, who described inmates as "sitting ducks."

"I am worried about him," she said of her partner. "He’s at risk and has no control over what is going on. It’s a very negative environment there. The inmates are frustrated."

"Everybody’s morale is in the dumps," the inmate said. "Nobody wants to play card games or board games because they’re scared of COVID."

A spokesperson for the province said Headingley jail is able to safely isolate infected inmates.

"Staff have identified units in the facility for COVID isolation to ensure a safe environment for staff and inmates," the spokesperson said Monday. "All correctional facilities have a number of safety protocols in place to address the spread, including regular cleaning and a supply of PPE to staff and inmates."

The spokesperson declined to reveal how many workers are on COVID-related sick leave.

"It would not be appropriate to comment in any detail about current staffing issues, but in general, like in the community and at health-care facilities, correctional facilities are experiencing staffing challenges due to sick calls. The department is making adjustments to ensure that facilities can be safely managed."

Manitoba announced last week it will offer rapid antigen tests to corrections employees and sheriffs.

Under Manitoba’s vaccine mandate, provincial corrections workers must be fully vaccinated or undergo regular testing to remain on the job.

The provincial spokesperson said 99.84 per cent of Manitoba justice staff affected by the mandate are fully vaccinated or undergoing testing, but refused to say if any corrections officers have chosen not to comply.

Kyle Ross, president of Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, said the latest COVID-19 wave has further disrupted the daily operation of provincial jails.

Many staff and inmates have caught the virus or been forced to isolate due to being close contacts, he said.

"It has to be pointed out that understaffing has been a problem before COVID existed and has now only gotten far worse during the pandemic," said Ross. "We need the government to invest in the recruitment and retention of highly trained correctional officers and we need that to happen now."

Chris Gamby, a Winnipeg-based lawyer and spokesman for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba, said COVID in jails has disrupted trials and court appearances.

He’s aware of at least one trial being cancelled. "It’s created some challenges."

Some hearings can be held virtually, and lawyers can hold video calls with clients on remand at Headingley, said Gamby.

Twitter: @chriskitching