SCO makes urgent appeal to province about COVID spread in jails

·3 min read

The Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO) is making an urgent appeal to the Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen to address concerns about the increase of COVID-19 infections in Manitoba’s correctional facilities.

SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said in a press release issued on Wednesday that he sent a letter to the minister on November 20 expressing his concerns.

“We need to know that our people are being cared for given how difficult the logistics are when it comes to managing a COVID-19 outbreak in these facilities,” said Daniels.

In the letter, Daniels requested a response within the week, which would have been Nov. 27. However, even after following up, they have yet to hear a response from the minister or any provincial government staff.

As of Nov. 30, 249 people have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Headingley Correctional Centre. 30 cases were found at the Women’s Correctional Centre, and 18 were found at the Agassiz Youth Centre, with 13 of them being youths.

“Colonization, systemic racism, and intergenerational trauma have all resulted in First Nation people being vastly overrepresented in the justice system,” said Daniels.

“The health of the people I represent is being jeopardized by the current conditions in provincial correctional facilities for which the justice minister is responsible.”

The organization believes that the cause of the rise of COVID-19 cases in correctional centres is due to the facilities being overcrowded as well as First Nations people’s underlying health conditions.

Moreover, the SCO has also come to learn that many of their citizens are transferred between facilities, which can further increase risk.

“It’s critical that we are thoroughly briefed and updated on all the measures that are in place to ensure the physical and mental safety of First Nation citizens,” said Daniels.

“We all have a responsibility to make sure those who are incarcerated are safe, starting with the minister of justice.”

As of Monday, First Nation people in Manitoba accounted for 25% of all hospitalizations and 38% of all Intensive Care Unit patients.

SCO trust that these figures result from centuries of colonization that has left First Nations with worse health outcomes, including a life expectancy that is 11 years shorter compared to those who are not First Nation.

“Our government’s priority continues to be the health and safety of all Manitobans including Indigenous persons and all individuals in our corrections facilities,” said Cullen on Wednesday.

“Manitoba Corrections is committed to making every effort to contain the spread of the virus and ensure each facility is safe. We will continue to adapt our operations on the advice of public health officials and medical experts to respond appropriately to the challenges posed by the pandemic, and keep inmates and staff safe at correctional facilities across the province.”

Although SCO has not received the letter yet, Cullen has responded to their concerns noting that the Manitoba government recognizes that Indigenous persons are overrepresented in correctional facilities.

Manitoba Justice has emphasized to correction staff about the need for strict adherence to the pandemic response plan and proper use of personal protective equipment.

In the letter, Cullen wrote that the province will remain committed to navigating the crisis in partnership with Indigenous communities in the spirit of recompilation.

Nicole Wong is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Nicole Wong, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun