Lois Wales, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU), whose membership includes provincial correctional officers, was in Thompson May 16 to meet Mayor Tim Johnston and discuss the presentations that MGEU and the City of Thompson made to the adult capacity review committee, which will advise the provincial government on how many spaces Manitoba's jails should add in the next 10 years.
"Some of the things they've identified in their presentation are things that we've been talking about in our presentation as well," Wales told the Thompson Citizen after meeting with Johnston. "So I think a lot of things we found common ground on."
Manitoba's jails are significantly over capacity right now, said Wales, housing about 1,000 more inmates than the nominal maximum, which is 1,492. Those numbers are expected to rise significantly over the next decade, the MGEU found, even before the effect of legislation like the federal government's Bill C-10, which would eliminate conditional sentencing, is factored into the equation.
"We did an analysis of how many inmates increase we had seen over the last three years, last seven years and last 10 years so we used those figures and forecasted ahead three years, seven years and 10 years," says MGEU special project officer John Baert, who accompanied Wales to Thompson. "In the next three years, if we go at the same rate, we'd be looking at 2,964 people in Manitoba jails. If we looked seven years ahead we'd have 3,964 people in Manitoba jails and in the next 10 years, at a similar rate to what we've seen over the last 10 years, we'd have 5,000 inmates in Manitoba jails,"
The province needs 2,000 more beds to eliminate overcrowding and keep up with future demand, says Wales. And while correctional officers and MGEU would likely be happy to seen any jail, anywhere, Wales says there are many things to like about the 220-bed restorative justice facility that Johnston would like to see built in Thompson, including the fact that there would be room to grow.
"The land that they're proposing to build a facility here in Thompson has the capacity to expand as well," said Wales.
Furthermore, a facility in the North would alleviate some of the problems faced by correctional officers who supervise inmates who are far away from family and friends.
"They're away from their families, they're away from their support system, they're away from any kind of programming, cultural programming and we thought that was very good that they want to address those kind of issues because that's how people keep reoffending is because they don't have those family connections anymore," Wales said. "Our correctional officers have said that before, too. They're housing people from the North and they don't get visitors. That's cut off which makes them more susceptible of course to the gang involvement and the things that you don't want them getting involved to in the jail system."
A facility with space for prisoners on remand in Thompson could also benefit other members of the MGEU, Wales said.
"Our sheriff's officers are driving people back and forth," said Wales. "They may bring them from The Pas to Thompson and then they never get to court that day. Meanwhile they've been on the road for 14 hours going and picking them up from The Pas, bringing them here, waiting all day in court then having to take them back to The Pas and, you know, nobody's even gone before a judge. So you know it plays on the whole system and our sheriff's officers are really taxed in the North just delivering people back and forth."
An MGEU survey conducted with 400 of Manitoba's 1,300 correctional officers found overwhelmingly that overcrowding is the jail system's number one problem
"Of those, 82 per cent said overcrowding was the number one issue in Manitoba correctional facilities and we interviewed people from all of the facilities right across the province," said Baert.
"They're all overcrowded," said Wales, noting that the jail in The Pas is routinely double capacity, with 75 to 80 per cent of the inmates on remand.
The other top two issues raised by correctional officers were gangs and segregation, and the mental health issues many prisoners have that they're not equipped to deal with. Wales said a quarter of inmates have a diagnosed mental health illness while as many as 70 per cent may suffer from undiagnosed mental health problems.
A decision to build new jails can't come soon enough for those who are employed in them, but easing of overcrowding is still a long way off, with the estimated time to plan and build a new jail ranging from seven to 10 years. The three-person adult capacity review committee – which includes former Brandon Police Service chief F. Richard Bruce, social work professor and past president of the John Howard Society of Manitoba Dennis Bracken, and Lucille Bruce, executive director of the Native Women's Transition Centre, a long-term safe house for aboriginal women and children – could make a decision by late June, says Wales. The committee previously said they hoped to have their recommendations ready by late spring.
Baert says the meeting with the mayor was productive.
"They've got really committed people on this file," he said. "They think they have the infrastructure and the capacity with the pipes and plumbing to the social infrastructure to make this happen. We've talked about staying in touch and making sure that we're both aware of what each other is doing, both the city and the union, in terms of where we have common ground and where we can move forward."