Riot leads to debate on overcrowded Manitoba prisons

The riot that broke out at Brandon Correctional Centre earlier this month has been the subject of debate, with NDP critic Kelvin Goertzen accusing the provincial government of turning a blind eye to Manitoba jail conditions.

As reported by the Winnipeg Free Press, a riot broke out at the Brandon Correctional Centre (BCC) on Oct. 4 during a routine lockdown. A group of 27 inmates refused to cooperate, formed a line and began walking toward prison guards. The guards managed to escape and seal the room to prevent the riot from spreading. The riot lasted four hours and was contained after tactical units arrived.

Following the riot, Goertzen accused the NDP of ignoring the fact that Manitoban jails are extremely overcrowded at approximately 400 inmates overcapacity across the province.

On the day of the riot, BCC had 282 inmates being held, 118 inmates over maximum capacity. In some cases there are up to 5 people living in one cell and approximately 50 inmates sleeping in the gymnasium.

“The corrections system in Manitoba is a tinderbox waiting to ignite. There needs to be another provincial jail, but the NDP government has simply ignored this fact, so now we are at the point where the overcrowding presents a threat to people inside and outside the facility,” said Goertzen in a press release.

Elizabeth Elliott of Simon Fraser University, an associate professor and co-director in restorative justice, disagrees with Goertzen’s statement that a new jail is the ultimate solution.

“Adding a new prison creates another problem because [in doing so] we are saying that we are solving our social problems by locking people up.”

Elliott said that an observation she has noticed after having visited provincial jails over several years is that inmates who are being held for less than violent crimes are often given smaller bail fees, so they are able post bail in efforts to make room in smaller provincial jails. The incarceration method used in North American jails in general may be a leading cause to overcrowding our jails.

“Most European jails do not incarcerate at the same rate we do,” Elliott continued.

Statistics from King’s College London show that there are 96 people incarcerated in France for every 100,000 other members of the public, whereas there are 116 people incarcerated for every 100,000 in Canada.

When asked how being in an overcrowded prison affects the mental aspect of a prison sentence and rehabilitation, Elliott explained that it typically has a very stressful result.

“When there is that degree of overcrowding it makes it harder for the inmates to blow off steam because now you have two times as many inmates waiting to use the same equipment, making it impossible to relax. Inmates often say that the only time they can relax is when the door is closed and no one can get to them,” she said.

Elliott explained that her experience being in jails has shown her that double bunking in one cell often leaves no room for the person in the top bunk to sit up, so inmates are forced to remain laying down. In a situation where there are up to five people in one cell, there is no room to walk around.

An NDP spokesperson stated to the Manitoban that changes are being made to adjust the current problem of overcrowding.

Since 1999, 396 beds have been added to Manitoban jails. The NDP also stated that in the past few years, 222 correctional staff members have begun working in Manitoban Jails. An 80-bed expansion to BCC is about to begin with construction costs coming in at approximately 25 million dollars.

This new expansion will bring the totally number of available beds in the BCC to 244, still 38 beds shy of the number of inmates being held in the jail during the Oct. 4 riot.