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Intimate spaces highlight new Headingley women's jail

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HEADINGLEY -- The new Women's Correctional Centre in Headingley is different from every other jail in Manitoba in one important respect -- it was built with the female offender in mind.

The $79.5-million facility, six years in the making, will begin to receive inmates in the next two weeks. It replaces a 19th-century women's jail in Portage la Prairie that is bursting at the seams with little space to provide proper programs.

The new digs are unique in North America and could become a model for other women's jails. Prison superintendent Margo Lee said she and others toured facilities across Canada as well as some in the United States during the design process, looking for best practices wherever they went.

Even though the new jail has yet to open, Lee and the building's designers (Number Ten Architectural Group) have already spoken about the project at a convention sponsored by the American Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles.

During a media tour of the new facility on Thursday, Lee said society is starting to realize women need different jails than those designed for men. "We can't just take a male facility and paint it pink and say, 'There you go, girls.' "

She said women don't function well in large settings. They want more intimate spaces. So the new correctional centre is divided into many sub-units where corrections officers will mingle with inmates throughout the day until lockup at night.

"Men are very different," said Lee, who began her career in corrections 20 years ago at the Headingley Jail, a men's facility. "They're wanting to know who's in charge, the hierarchy. Men will want to see the person in charge to have a problem dealt with, whereas women will go to somebody that they've got a relationship with and (who) will listen to them."

The Portage Correctional Centre, built in 1893 and officially designed for 35 inmates, now incarcerates 85 women. It lacks the space to properly carry out rehabilitative programming.

That won't be the case at the new prison. There are several classrooms and meeting rooms so program providers -- be it for anger management, coping skills, addictions counselling or relationship counselling -- won't compete for space. Meeting rooms are also available for folks from social agencies to meet with inmates to ease their return to the outside world.

There's a spacious medical unit, a dental suite and even an area set aside for palliative care. The large kitchen will double as a training facility for learning life skills (such as math and measuring) as well as food safety and culinary skills.

If a jail can be cheery, this one may be it. The new facility is bathed in natural light. Each cell has a window, and even interior rooms receive an abundance of natural light either from skylights or indirectly, such as from atop a dividing wall.

Women's Correctional Centre

100: number of cells

193: number of beds, 25 of which will be set aside for federal inmates (those serving sentences longer than two years)

20: percentage of cells that are wheelchair accessible

$79.5 million -- the facility's cost

185: number of full-time staff the new jail will have

120,000 -- number of square feet

1893: the year the Portage Correctional Centre -- the facility it is replacing -- was built

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 27, 2012 A5

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