Recently, the NDP government released a report from the adult corrections capacity review committee, a group that was formed to provide recommendations to government on how to ease chronic overcrowding in Manitoba jails. Far from providing realistic solutions to overcrowding, however, the committee's report threatens to exacerbate the problem for decades to come.
Manitoba jails currently are at 140 per cent of rated capacity, and the increases we have seen over the past several years have been overwhelming.
If inmate counts increase over the next 10 years at the rate they have been growing over the last decade, we conceivably could have close to 5,000 inmates in provincial jails, although we only have space for about 2,000 inmates.
Yet the committee's list of recommendations does not include adding significantly more space to the system. Instead, it recommends basically standing pat with what the jail system currently has while making attempts to bring inmate counts down.
Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan told the Winnipeg Free Press recently that federal changes, including eliminating conditional sentences for certain offences and adding more mandatory minimums, will mean more inmates in provincial jails.
Those changes came about as a result of federal Bill C-10, which is legislation the NDP government supported. Swan added that special police enforcement units, like the Winnipeg police gang response unit and suppression plan, and a new warrant enforcement unit has added, on average, about 100 inmates to corrections counts.
Other crime measures imposed by the NDP government also include getting tougher on domestic violence and drunk driving, meaning even more people will come into contact with the justice system, and many could end up in provincial jails.
It's clear that Manitoba will be housing more inmates in the future, but the question that Swan has yet to answer is this: where will we put them?
One recommendation of the committee is to build a correctional centre in Dauphin to replace the current decrepit facility in the Parkland region. But replacing one jail with another hardly moves us further along. Dauphin's current rated capacity is about 50 beds, but it routinely houses almost twice that many inmates. There is no indication yet about size of the new facility, but many expect it to have a rated capacity of about 200, and it won't be on-line for about eight years (the new women's jail in Headingley took 10 years from concept to completion) so we won't be much further ahead in terms of capacity.
The capacity review committee believes the best way to address the overcrowding crisis is to invest in front-end crime prevention measures, poverty reduction programs, job training initiatives, reducing remand counts by making the court system more efficient, and implementing more recommendations from the 1999 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (there is no mention of which ones).
These are initiatives that we support, but will this alone fix the problem or are we rolling the dice with the safety of correctional officers and our communities? These investments require both time and significant resources. This government has already tried, and failed, to appreciably reduce remand counts. They've invested in ways to make the court system more efficient, with limited results. Releasing more inmates into neighbourhoods through more community supervision is likely a difficult pill to swallow for the public, and significantly investing in more social supports will be difficult in the current budgetary climate.
Correctional officers made clear to the capacity committee that easing the burden of overcrowding will take a balanced approach that includes a meaningful increase in beds and space in one or more new facilities, significantly increased investment in mental health and drug courts, and investments in programs that address mental health challenges and addictions. They have seen little evidence that they are being listened to. Little has been said by current Minister Swan about the overall plan to reduce overcrowding, or which recommendations might be implemented and when.
We are already at a crisis point in dealing with overcrowding at Manitoba jails, and the problem will only get worse if steps aren't taken. In doing nothing to solve the crisis, we are putting correctional officers at increased peril. That is a health and safety issue that cannot be ignored. In addition, if nothing is done to increase space, we significantly limit our ability to deliver programs and services to inmates in jails to reduce rates of reoffending.
That's a problem for all Manitobans.
Michelle Gawronsky is president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union.