Province must act on inmate deaths

Correctional workers seek answers alongside grieving families

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RECENTLY, five inmates died while in custody at the Winnipeg Remand Centre, sparking protests and questions. As a mother, grandmother and concerned Manitoban, I would like to express my heartfelt sympathies to their family and friends. I can only imagine how frustrated they must be by the lack of answers about how their loved ones died.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/10/2016 (2227 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

RECENTLY, five inmates died while in custody at the Winnipeg Remand Centre, sparking protests and questions. As a mother, grandmother and concerned Manitoban, I would like to express my heartfelt sympathies to their family and friends. I can only imagine how frustrated they must be by the lack of answers about how their loved ones died.

As the president of Manitoba’s largest union representing more than 2,300 correctional officers in our province, I am also expressing the officers’ sympathy and shared desire for clarity regarding these deaths.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU) has been actively encouraging the provincial government, through Manitoba Justice, to meet with the families and share the results of their investigations. Having said that, it is important that we all suspend judgment about what happened in each case until all the facts are known.

Our members understand why these deaths can be seen as representative of a much wider, historic problem in our province. MGEU correctional officers are well aware, for example, that 70 per cent of inmates under their charge are aboriginal Manitobans. This reality is part of the shameful legacy of Canada’s treatment of aboriginal people. There is no denying the role of this history in shaping the challenges facing our criminal justice system, or that solutions lie in the principles outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

One of the commission’s “calls to action” is engaging in trust-building dialogue. We believe this is a good first step and have extended an invitation to those expressing deep concerns about inmate treatment to sit down and talk with the Manitobans whose job it is to keep inmates, themselves, their co-workers and the Manitoba public safe.

Without question, the issues facing Manitoba’s correctional system are profoundly challenging and complex. It is a system often overlooked, one most of us only think about when we must.

I would argue this is such a time. Over the last few years, I’ve spoken out often and repeatedly about the need for better training, equipment and resources for corrections officers. We’ve been urging the province every chance we get to address chronic overcrowding of our correctional facilities, which routinely operate at 125 per cent over capacity, leaving little room for rehabilitation supports.

Several reports exist that provide a road map to improving Manitoba’s jails and shed light on many of the aspects of the system we’re concerned about. The adult capacity review committee produced a report four years ago that MGEU correctional officers participated in producing. A number of the recommendations in that report have not been acted upon — chiefly, the recommendation to build a replacement for the crumbling Dauphin Correctional Centre, which has been in use for more than a century. Correctional officers also recommended significantly increasing investment in mental-health and drug courts, bringing remand counts down and investing in programs that address mental-health challenges and addictions.

The auditor general also produced a report, Managing the Province’s Adult Offenders, which spoke to improving aspects of our correctional system. On Monday, the auditor general will deliver a progress report to a legislative committee hearing on the progress the government has made on these recommendations.

A recent report from the Public Service Foundation of Canada described our correctional system as the “mental-health system of last resort, an inhumane way to deal with people who need treatment and supports.” Correctional Service Canada data indicate 62 per cent of offenders entering federal penitentiaries are flagged as requiring mental-health assessment or service. Improved mental-health care is urgently needed for inmates struggling with mental illness (both diagnosed and not), for those in the community at risk of entering the criminal justice system and for correctional officers who experience traumatic events and exceedingly stressful conditions at work.

None of this can be fixed overnight. The lack of trust expressed by those protesting outside the Winnipeg Remand Centre in recent weeks is felt by more than just family and friends of the inmates who lost their lives.

We are calling on the provincial government to not turn away from these deaths and to move forward in new and positive ways. They fund our correctional facilities. They are the only ones who have the ability to call investigations or inquests. Those in mourning and correctional officers themselves are all counting on this government to show leadership when it comes to tackling the issues inside our jails.

Michelle Gawronsky is the president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.

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