Angry staff learn Portage youth jail closing via social media More than 100 workers face career upheaval

The Progressive Conservative government is closing a second jail in a span of just over two years, putting more than 100 jobs in limbo and dealing another economic blow to a Manitoba community.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/03/2022 (316 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Progressive Conservative government is closing a second jail in a span of just over two years, putting more than 100 jobs in limbo and dealing another economic blow to a Manitoba community.

Corrections workers reacted with shock and anger Thursday after learning Agassiz Youth Centre in Portage la Prairie will be shuttered in July. The province closed the Dauphin Correctional Centre in May 2020 after the costs of renovations were deemed too high.

Some Agassiz employees found out via social media posts or other sources online after the government issued a news release just before 10:30 Thursday morning.

“It’s absolutely gut-wrenching to find out that the fate of your career is up in the air from a news outlet and not even from the employer,” said one worker. “To see we will be closing in only a few months, trying to process this information and not be able to ask any type of questions makes me sick to my stomach.”

Corrections workers reacted with shock and anger after learning Agassiz Youth Centre in Portage la Prairie will be shuttered in July. (Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“The youth justice system is already so broken, and it’s a shame that the people who are putting in work to make differences in the lives of our most troubled, damaged, traumatized youth weren’t even a consideration on the radar of Manitoba Justice,” said another.

Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen justified the planned July 22 closure because the facility has been operating below 50 per cent capacity “for the better part of a decade.”

There were 32 youths incarcerated at Agassiz Thursday, exactly one-quarter of the facility’s 128-inmate capacity rating. About 110 people are currently employed at the jail.

The majority of Agassiz’s inmates are Indigenous and from northern communities, and the province needs to shift its priorities to better serve them, Goertzen said.

“We have many jurisdictions in Manitoba, and certainly in the North, which are really in need of justice services,” he said. “In some parts of Manitoba we have an over-capacity, (in some) we have more resources than we need and in other places we have almost no resources.”

Goertzen would not elaborate on the province’s plans to improve service in the region, but noted Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee and Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook would join him for an announcement Friday.

Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen justified the planned closure because the facility has been operating below capacity. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“Because there aren’t transitional facilities in the North, a lot of those youth serve their entire time at (the Manitoba Youth Centre in south Winnipeg) or AYC and don’t get the ability to go back into their communities and transition back… which we know has better results,” Goertzen said, adding Agassiz’s operating funds will be “repurposed” for northern communities, with the possibility of establishing “open custody” detention centres.

A statement issued later in the day from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said more needs to be done to prevent youths from becoming involved in the justice system.

“We must acknowledge that the colonial system does not work for First Nations and the closing of one youth centre is not a long-term solution,” AMC acting grand chief Eric Redhead said in the statement.

During the noon hour, Agassiz staff attended a meeting with Todd Clarke, the assistant deputy minister of corrections, and Greg Skelly, the executive director of custody corrections and were told they will have individual meetings at work to discuss transfer options that will include the Manitoba Youth Centre, Headingley Correctional Centre and the Women’s Correctional Centre.

A Justice spokesperson responded to the communications criticism in a statement issued to the Free Press.

“While facility staff made efforts to ensure all affected staff were notified as soon as possible, we regret that some staff may have learned about the closure by other means besides this way,” the statement said.

Some Agassiz employees found out via social-media posts or other sources online after the government issued a news release just before 10:30 a.m. Thursday. (Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“They are looking to move 30 of us to MYC… to accommodate for the influx of inmates. We’ll just be shuffled along to fill vacancies where they exist,” the employee said. “We feel slighted, disrespected, disgusted, insulted and angry. It has been obvious for a long time that one of the youth centres will be closing. We have been told time after time, ‘We don’t know, business as usual until we know.’ We feel like our lives don’t matter.”

Another staff member said employees will be in a take-it-or-leave-it situation.

“Basically, you will be presented with the option. If you choose not to take it, you’re without a job,” the worker said. “They will say they found you work.”

There are fears some staff may have to move to cities or towns several hours away to keep their jobs.

“It’s not off the table. We’ll have some say in where we go, but it will be seniority based,” said one of the employees.

Those who want to continue living in Portage, about 70 kilometres west of Winnipeg, may have to commute long distances or look for other work.

Portage Mayor Irvine Ferris said the closure will have a profound, negative impact on the city and its approximately 13,000 residents.

“Agassiz has been a staple employer in our community for over 100 years and this closure will have a significant economic and social impact throughout our community and indeed our region,” Ferris said. “Our thoughts are with those staff and their families and what they’re going through today. Obviously this means a huge upheaval for those families.”

There are fears some staff may have to move to cities or towns several hours away to keep their jobs. (Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In January 2021, the province announced the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage would be shuttered over a three-year period. The upcoming closure of the residential care facility for adults with intellectual disabilities will mean the loss of about 400 jobs, Ferris said.

“It feels like we’ve worked incredibly hard to take one step forward, and today the province has put us back two steps,” he said. “It really feels like the province has turned its back on Portage today.”

Closing Agassiz opens other doors: advocates 

Closing the Agassiz Youth Centre is an opportunity to overhaul the province’s approach to young offenders and put a renewed focus on restorative, community-led responses, advocates say.

“Holding young people in custody really ought to be a measure of last resort,” acting Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth Ainsley Krone said Thursday.

“Ensuring that reintegration and rehabilitation is available through community-based supports — we know that’s what works to address the needs of youth and also to keep Manitobans safe.”

Krone said her office has ongoing concerns with the rehabilitative and mental-health services available to young people in custody, adding the province is in compliance with fewer than half of the recommendations it has made to improve the system.

Closing the Agassiz Youth Centre is an opportunity to overhaul the province’s approach to young offenders and put a renewed focus on restorative, community-led responses, advocates say.

“Holding young people in custody really ought to be a measure of last resort,” acting Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth Ainsley Krone said Thursday.

“Ensuring that reintegration and rehabilitation is available through community-based supports — we know that’s what works to address the needs of youth and also to keep Manitobans safe.”

Krone said her office has ongoing concerns with the rehabilitative and mental-health services available to young people in custody, adding the province is in compliance with fewer than half of the recommendations it has made to improve the system.

“Those recommendations not only emerge from the stories of children who have died, but they also emerge from extensive research, consultations with communities, input from young people themselves who are currently experiencing those systems,” she said.

“I’d be looking for the government to listen to those voices and to implement in full the recommendations that are currently sitting in front of them.”

On Friday, Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen will be joined by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee and Thompson Mayor Colleen Smookis in a scheduled announcement of changes to the youth justice system that focus on increasing resources in the North.

Ensuring young people and their families can access appropriate justice services close to home is crucial to rehabilitation, Krone said. 

“Custody ought to be seen as an opportunity to flood these young people with therapeutic support with mental-health clinicians, with all of these different things that they’re maybe not getting out in the community,” she said. 

Northern and First Nations communities also need to be able to offer justice programs that meet the needs of their children and families, First Nations’ Family Advocate Cora Morgan said.

About 67 per cent of the children in the child-welfare system exit with a criminal record, Morgan said.

“Restorative justice is a really valuable way to address conflict and when we measure the rate of recidivism we have really high success rates at preventing re-offence,” she said.

“I find that a lot of times, particularly for children in care, going and attending the (Manitoba Youth Centre detention facility in Winnipeg) isn’t a deterrent from coming into conflict with the law.”

Sending young offenders out of their communities has also separated families and placed children into unfamiliar institutions where cultural differences can be immense, she said. Instead, the province needs to find ways to divert children in care away from the courts.

“Historically in the North, and all over Manitoba, there used to be community justice circles that would be able to deal with those matters outside of the court system,” she said. “There should be the empowerment and revival of those mechanisms.”

— Danielle Da Silva

The community is facing significant stress and uncertainty as families choose whether to pull up stakes and take jobs elsewhere, Ferris said.

“These good, stable government jobs backstop our local economy,” he said. “To lose (them is) a tremendous blow.”

Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Kyle Ross said it was the second time the Justice Department has mishandled communications with corrections staff set to lose their positions.

“This was exactly how we were notified about the Dauphin jail closure,” Ross said in a statement to the Free Press. The province announced in January 2020 the adult corrections facility would be shuttered.

“We all know that had devastating effects which rippled through the community and it will, in no doubt, happen in Portage La Prairie as well.”

The province said Manitoba has the highest per capita youth incarceration rate in the country, which is about three times the national average. As of Tuesday, 79 youth were in custody.

Over the coming months, youth at Agassiz will be transferred to MYC, which has a youth court and spiritual programs, Goertzen said. The centre is currently operating at approximately 50 per cent of its rated capacity.

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

chris.kitching@freepress.mb.ca

Chris Kitching
Reporter

As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

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