MGEU: Programs won't solve jail crisis

Excerpted from an article by Manitoba Government General Employees' Union (MGEU/NUPGE) President Michelle Gawronsky that appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Winnipeg (12 Feb. 2013) - The NDP government released a report from the adult corrections capacity review committee, a group formed to provide recommendations on how to ease chronic overcrowding in Manitoba jails. However, the committee’s report threatens to exacerbate the problem for decades to come.

Manitoba jails are at 140 per cent of rated capacity ... if inmate counts increase over the next 10 years at the rate they have been, we conceivably could have close to 5,000 inmates in provincial jails, although we only have space for about 2,000 inmates.

Yet the committee’s list of recommendations does not include adding significantly more space to the system. 

Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan told the Winnipeg Free Press that federal changes, including eliminating conditional sentences for certain offences and adding more mandatory minimums, will mean more inmates in provincial jails.

Swan added that special police enforcement units, like the Winnipeg police gang response unit and suppression plan, and a new warrant enforcement unit has added, on average, about 100 inmates to corrections counts.

It’s clear that Manitoba will be housing more inmates in the future, but the question that Swan has yet to answer is this: where will we put them?

The capacity review committee believes the best way to address the overcrowding crisis is to invest in front-end crime prevention measures, poverty reduction programs, job training initiatives, reducing remand counts by making the court system more efficient, and implementing more recommendations from the 1999 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (there is no mention of which ones).

These are initiatives that we support, but will this alone fix the problem or are we rolling the dice with the safety of correctional officers and our communities? This government has tried, and failed, to appreciably reduce remand counts. They’ve invested in ways to make the court system more efficient, with limited results. Releasing more inmates into neighbourhoods through more community supervision is likely a difficult pill to swallow for the public, and significantly investing in more social supports will be difficult in the current budgetary climate.

Correctional officers made clear to the committee that easing the burden of overcrowding will take a balanced approach that includes a meaningful increase in beds and space in one or more new facilities, increased investment in mental health and drug courts, and investments in programs that address mental health challenges and addictions. They have seen little evidence that they are being listened to. 

We are at a crisis point in dealing with overcrowding at Manitoba jails, and the problem will only get worse if steps aren’t taken.  In doing nothing to solve the crisis, we are putting correctional officers at increased peril. That is a health and safety issue that cannot be ignored. In addition, if nothing is done to increase space, we significantly limit our ability to deliver programs and services to inmates in jails to reduce rates of reoffending.

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE

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