As concerns of COVID-19 spreading to the inmate population increase, Manitoba’s largest union is urging the province to reconsider its plan to close the Dauphin Correctional Centre.
"Adding 60 inmates to other correctional facilities around Manitoba, some of which are already forcing inmates to sleep on the floor, would only exacerbate the risks posed by COVID-19 to inmates and correctional officers," Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Michelle Gawronsky said in a letter Tuesday to provincial Justice Minister Cliff Cullen.
The province announced in January it would be closing the century-old jail at the end of May, resulting in the transfer of roughly 60 inmates to other institutions and forcing its 80 staff to either relocate or find new work. If the closure proceeds as scheduled, displaced jail staff will be forced to find new jobs and homes "in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century," Gawronsky said.
"Proceeding with the DCC closure at this time will place the health of these families, and indeed the entire community at unnecessary risk," she said. "It is unacceptable to place these families in such an untenable position."
In announcing the closure last January, Cullen said the jail no longer meets modern standards.
An inquest report last year into the 2016 hanging death of a Dauphin inmate found the jail was outdated, preventing corrections officers from being able to adequately monitor all inmates.
News of the jail closure came the same day the province announced an $11-million expansion and renovation to the adjacent courthouse.
Cullen was not made available for an interview Tuesday.
Adding 60 or more inmates to an already crowded jail system "is just putting gasoline on a fire," said Larry Budzinski of the Dauphin Correctional Centre Coalition.
"It doesn’t take an immunologist to figure out that’s pretty dangerous," Budzinski said Tuesday.
"I’d hate to see somebody fall ill, and maybe even a death," he said. "Those are close, confining situations. Once it gets in the jails it could be devastating… It’s just ripe for explosion in an incarceratory setting."
Budzinski said he has reached out to Cullen two times in the past week, but has received no reply.
"I know they are busy with other things in the province, but this would be fairly important," he said.
Inmate numbers at the province’s seven adult correctional facilities, including Dauphin’s, routinely exceed the total rated capacity of 1,985 inmates. As of Tuesday, there were 2,138 adult inmates in custody, with bed space available for 2,550.
An email statement from a Justice Manitoba spokesperson did not directly answer if delaying closure of the Dauphin jail was under consideration.
"We will continue to adjust our operations and response should the situation change, and continue to take direction from our medical and public health experts," the spokesperson said.
Last week, the province confirmed it is suspending intermittent sentences for people who have been serving their time on weekends. Only offenders sentenced to 90 days or less in jail are eligible for an intermittent sentence.
Existing legislation allows the province to manage the release dates of inmates who have provided a release plan "with the appropriate supports in place," the spokesperson said.
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