Justice officials are refusing to reveal how many corrections officers have not yet complied with the province’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, as questions are raised about staffing levels at Manitoba’s largest jail.

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Justice officials are refusing to reveal how many corrections officers have not yet complied with the province’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, as questions are raised about staffing levels at Manitoba’s largest jail.

An inmate at Headingley Correctional Institution contacted the Free Press on Wednesday afternoon, saying beds at the facility west of Winnipeg had been closed last week because of short-staffing. He said three people had been added to his dorm (18, up from 15) where they sleep in bunk beds a foot away from each other.

"It’s kind of a pressure-cooker when you don’t have enough space," said the inmate, who the Free Press is not naming to protect his identity.

The man said he believed the perceived shortage was because guards had left their positions after refusing to comply with the province’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. When inmates have asked guards how many of their colleagues are away, he said, they haven’t received an answer.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>The Headingley Correctional Institute in Headingley.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The Headingley Correctional Institute in Headingley.

"We don’t have a right to ask."

The province had the same answer when asked by the Free Press to provide the number of officers currently not working because they aren’t vaccinated and are choosing to not take the regular testing option.

Despite releasing similar numbers for health-care workers, a spokesperson from the province said in an email the number was low, but officials wouldn’t provide specifics due to it being "an HR issue."

"Staffing levels are not significantly impacted by COVID-19 or the testing protocol," the spokesperson said.

“Being a correctional officer is no easy job. Situations can escalate in seconds. These risks are even more challenging with the growing staffing shortages in Manitoba jails." — Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union president Kyle Ross

That may be, but Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union president Kyle Ross says issues with staffing at Headingley and other similar facilities have been long-standing.

"Being a correctional officer is no easy job. Situations can escalate in seconds. These risks are even more challenging with the growing staffing shortages in Manitoba jails," Ross said Thursday.

"The immunization and testing mandate has had negligible impact on staffing levels. These recruitment and retention challenges existed before the pandemic. It’s our hope that this new premier (Heather Stefanson) will take this issue seriously and fix staffing shortages immediately."

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said he’d been in contact with several corrections officers on issues of safety, burn-out and post-traumatic stress that could be affecting retention.

An inmate at Headingley Correctional Institution contacted the Free Press on Wednesday afternoon, saying beds at the facility west of Winnipeg had been closed last week because of short-staffing.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

An inmate at Headingley Correctional Institution contacted the Free Press on Wednesday afternoon, saying beds at the facility west of Winnipeg had been closed last week because of short-staffing.

"It’s not safe for inmates and it’s not safe for the people working there either, but this is just an area that has been off the PCs' radar," he said.

Lamont said he's not surprised the province wouldn’t provide a number of corrections officers not working due to the mandate, and suggested secrecy and issues like staffing problems in correctional centres are connected.

"Because they’re unwilling to let out information that might actually result in change, we end up with crises all the time," Lamont said.

"The PCs are secretive by default, I think that’s one of the lessons… This is a government that really only wants to tell stories they want to hear, so they will throttle off, cut off information that makes them look bad."

malak.abas@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: malakabas_

Malak Abas

Malak Abas
Reporter

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.