The Progressive Conservative government said Friday it will close the century-old Dauphin Correctional Centre this spring, forcing its 80 employees to either relocate or find new work.
The announcement came on the same day the government announced an $11-million expansion and renovation of the city's adjacent courthouse.
Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said his department will do what it can to find jobs for the affected employees at other institutions.
"We do have a number of vacancies within corrections right now," he said in a conference call from Dauphin.
The previous NDP government announced its intention seven years ago to replace the old and outdated facility. The plan was to triple its capacity to 180 beds to ease pressure on jails in Brandon and The Pas.
However, the new facility was never built and the Progressive Conservatives have decided instead to invest heavily in the city's courthouse, enhancing security, building more holding cells, improving interior and exterior accessibility and adding new administrative and office spaces for court staff, sheriff services and the judiciary.
"I think it's safe to say a facility that was built in 1917 does not meet today's standards," Cullen said of the doomed jail.
A December inquest report into the 2016 hanging death of a Dauphin inmate said the jail was outdated, preventing corrections officers from being able to adequately monitor all inmates.
Cullen said he was confident that the provincial corrections system would be able accommodate Dauphin's 60-plus inmates.
He said the current provincial prison population of about 2,100 is some 250 less than it was at its peak a few years ago. He said restorative justice measures, which he would like to enhance, have diverted many law-breakers away from correctional institutions.
In a statement, the City of Dauphin called the news of the closure "devastating" and said it came without prior notice or consultation.
"This closure will result in the loss of at least 80 jobs, from which a ripple effect will be felt not only in Dauphin but throughout the Parkland (region)," the city said.
The union representing the bulk of the employees at the correctional facility said the decision will have a significant impact not only on its members, but also on inmates and the entire justice system in Manitoba.
"I can tell you that our members are going though a wide range of emotions right now. They're upset, they're scared, they're confused. They don't understand what their future is," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union.
She questioned why the government would eliminate the jail at a time when the meth crisis and increased violent crime is putting pressure on correctional facilities.
Employees learned Friday morning that the jail will close on May 29.
As of Friday, the minimum-security facility, with an official capacity of 61 males (plus temporary holding areas for youth and female offenders), housed 69 persons, the union said.
While the government has said it would try to find work for the affected staff, there have been no assurances, Gawronsky said.
Affected workers include corrections officers, nurses, administrative staff and a number of contract workers whose terms were close to coming to an end, Cullen said.
NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine said she was concerned that the closure would have a negative domino effect on the rest of the prison system.
"At any given time a lot of our facilities are busting at the seams," she said.
Also problematic, Fontaine said, is that a lot of the folks housed in the Dauphin facility come from rural communities and the North.
"Where are they going to get transferred?" she said. "You're pushing them further and further away from the very limited supports that they have."
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Updated on Friday, January 24, 2020 at 8:50 PM CST: Adds photos