For many, time in jail is worse than prison

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Jail conditions across the province and specifically at the Winnipeg Remand Centre in Manitoba’s capital city must be investigated and changed.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/11/2016 (2139 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Jail conditions across the province and specifically at the Winnipeg Remand Centre in Manitoba’s capital city must be investigated and changed.

With several deaths in 2016, this is a real crisis and a gross injustice. It is time for provincial leaders to work in a transparent way to stop the deaths and find alternatives to incarceration.

Prison is often thought to be the only place in our society where punishment happens. Prisons are organized federally, have a relatively stable prisoner population and access to more funding for services.

Jails and remand centres are organized at the provincial level and lack the funding needed to provide services and exhibit more deplorable living and working conditions. Jails and remand centres are drastically different than prisons and require our critical attention.

A lot of overlooked pain and suffering are taking place in jails. Broadly, jails are the place where individuals first coming into the system are processed and await trial, and some people serve short sentences. Most of the prisoners detained are on remand — detained while awaiting trial or sentencing.

Across Canada, but specifically in Manitoba, there is a big problem with jail bloat, as pointed out in a recent MacDonald-Laurier Institute criminal justice report card.

Jail bloat is when court backlogs and lack of diversion programs causes remand populations to surge above 50 per cent. Half or more of jail prisoners are simply awaiting trial. They are presumed innocent but are held in worse conditions than those in prisons. They often cannot afford or manage to arrange bail.

The unintended consequences of jail bloat include overcrowding, increased violence and the breakdown of remand centre organization, all of which are punitive in effect for jail prisoners. This remand system causes pain, suffering and, as we have seen in Manitoba, cruel deaths for many people who are presumed innocent.

There are more reasons why jails and remand centres involve the worst injustices in the criminal justice system. Jails are more chaotic than prisons. The population turnover is about 45 to 50 times greater than with prison. There are always many more prisoners coming, and going and there is a lack of supervision.

Across Canada, there are stories of homicides in jails and remand centres and suicides staff do not seem to find out about for hours. (The pain for families is worsened when the government refuses to release any details). A constant flux in the population and limited supervision leads to harmful collisions of different types of prisoners you do not get in prisons. Jail and remand centres also detain people with mental health issues who do not belong in jail and instead require health care. Canadian jails are full of people punished for their mental health issues.

Another reason jail is worse than prison is there are few services or programs despite the number of people on remand and the length of time they are in for. These places are austere. There is little, if any, yard time. People are mostly held in their cells 22 to 23 hours a day. Those detained may be double- or triple-bunked. Some may await trial for months, even years. These are the conditions that create homicide and suicide in jails and remand centres. The system produces them.

Jails and remand centres also continue the shameful colonial relationship between indigenous peoples and the Canadian state. Recent Statistics Canada numbers suggest that on average, there are about 14,000 adults held in remand centres across the provinces and territories and 10,000 adults in sentenced custody. Indigenous adults are overrepresented in admissions to jails and remand centres, accounting for one-quarter of admissions while representing about four per cent of the Canadian adult population. In some northern Manitoban jails, more than 60 per cent of the people being held are indigenous. This is despite the fact that in Canada we have seen many commissions in the past three decades argue the use of the criminal justice system to manage indigenous peoples needs to be stopped.

The Winnipeg Remand Centre has particular problems and shows why jails are generally worse than prisons — because of overcrowding, chaotic management, collision of different populations and lack of programs and services. Our provincial leaders should not only investigate jail and remand conditions in Manitoba, but also scale back and change the system.

This does not mean simply changing the way jails work. It requires a bigger conversation about rates of arrest and over-policing, as well as court diversion.

Some might argue Canada has missed the punitive turn evident in the United States, infamous for its mass incarceration; that in Canada, incarceration rates have gone down or remained stable since the 1950s, so there is no need to worry about jails. This deflects attention away from the lethal policies in operation in Canadian jails and remand centres today.

Pretending we do not have a problem here discounts the lives taken away from Manitoban families, the people killed by a system that has always been broken. It is time to start paying attention. It is time to stop relying on jails and remand centres to manage the social and economic challenges we face.

Kevin Walby is associate professor and chancellor’s research chair at the University of Winnipeg department of criminal justice.

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