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More jail cells and the NDP

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A curious thing is happening in Manitoba.

Recently the NDP put out a news release it was expanding space at two provincial jails so both could handle more inmates.

Facilities at Milner Ridge near Lac du Bonnet and in The Pas are being expanded. The addition to Milner Ridge follows a 150-bed expansion that was completed last year.

The province is still in the process of adding more jail cells--the NDP call them "beds"—in Brandon and building a new women’s jail at Headingley. The cost for all of this is in the millions.


The first reason is to deal with overcrowding in the adult and youth correctional systems. There are too many people either sitting in remand waiting for their day in court and too many people doing time.

Overcrowding is a real problem. Three inmates to a cell, two on a bunk bed and one on a mattress on the floor, is a real safety threat to correctional staff. Overcrowding builds up resentment among prisoners, who don’t like being stacked like firewood.

The Free Press recently got a call from family of a Hells Angel member who’s inside to complain about this. He at first consented to an interview, but then changed his mind. (Biker rules forbid members from squawking to reporters).

Steps are being taken by the Harper government to reduce the number of people on remand.

But still it’s forecasted more people will be arrested, convicted and sent to jail. Bail rules have also changed; in many cases it’s harder to get even though a possible conviction could be months if not years down the road.

Again, why?

Despite crime-is-out-of control headlines, it’s generally accepted Canada’s crime rate is falling.

Certainly, one year is different from the next, but the overall crime rate is down over the past two decades.

Yes, gang and drug-related crime, and Internet-related crime like child pornography, have emerged as new threats. But the impact has been marginal on police-reported crime in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.

They say the main reason is that Canada’s birth rate has declined—it’s why government is so focused on increasing immigration. The decline in the birth rate means there are fewer males being born, which in-turn means there are fewer young men committing crimes.

So why do we need more jails?

The NDP government makes no secret that it’s getting tougher on all offenders, from young auto thieves to gangsters to drug dealers to sexual offenders to impaired drivers.

On the surface that doesn’t sound bad. We and our children deserve to be protected from those who threaten our safety.

But will more jails accomplish that? (A sidebar to this is the province has done little to increase the number of provincial court judges, the people who ultimately shepherd offenders through the system).

I know I sound like a namby-pamby lefty white-wine sipper, but can’t we do more to deal with the root causes of crime, like poverty and the disenfranchisement of many aboriginal community?

What about sinking some of those millions being spent on bigger jails by making life better in the North End or on Manitoba’s First Nations?

I know that same question is being asking by the NDP, as they sit around the cabinet table deciding which jail to make bigger next.

It’s also being asked by many in the party. A quick glance at some of the Equality and Social Justice resolutions up for discussion at the NDP’s recent 2010 annual convention underlines that. There were no resolutions calling for more jails; just the opposite. Fighting poverty and prevention programs were the dominant themes.

Certainly, the jail expansion has been in the works for awhile. This kind of stuff doesn’t happen in secret. Yet there was nothing about bigger jails until now, not even a hint of it, not even in Premier Greg Selinger’s first throne speech.

So it’s a little bit curious the NDP issued their news release on more jail "beds" after the convention.

Maybe curious is the wrong word.


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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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