The Manitoba government says it's taking steps to reduce overcrowding in its jails, in light of criticism from the province's auditor general about correctional centres being over capacity.
Manitoba's prisons are at 126 per cent capacity and adult inmates are being double-bunked or even quadruple-bunked in cells, Auditor General Carol Bellringer said in her annual report, released Wednesday.
Inmates are being held in correctional facilities that defy standards set out by the United Nations and aren't always adequately supervised once they are released, she said.
Manitoba has the highest adult incarceration rate of all the provinces and the highest rate of adult community supervision, Bellringer said. Of the 10,000 adult offenders in Manitoba, about two-thirds of them are supervised in the community, she said.
But Attorney General Andrew Swan says the adult population in the province's jails has dropped in recent years.
"Over the past 18 months, from October 18th of 2012 to yesterday, we actually have more than 100 less people — adults — in Manitoba jails," he told CBC News on Thursday.
Bellringer's report found that the province has increased capacity by 52 per cent since 2008 by adding 651 beds — in some cases, putting beds in rehabilitation areas and even gyms — but there is no plan to address a shortage that is expected to reach 2,744 beds in five years.
"Their planning was inadequate for the long-term needs," the report states in part.
Many waiting for trial in jail
Justin Piché, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, says the federal government's "tough on crime" strategy has contributed to growing jail populations.
"What we're seeing in Manitoba — double, triple, quadruple-bunking — are some of the worst custodial conditions in the country," he said.
The growing inmate population is leading to more violence among offenders and towards jail staff, according to Piché and the union representing jail guards.
"Morale is down because of overcrowding. Its causes morale and stress levels for our corrections officers," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union.
Bellringer's findings also concern prisoners' advocates like the John Howard Society, which says too many people are being kept in jail while they wait for their trials.
"There is an aversion to putting people on bail, where actually the majority of people who are charged with a crime are supposed to be out in the community because they are only charged," said Kate Kehler, the association's acting executive director.
"Unfortunately, the majority of people we have locked up right now are on remand status. They are only charged."
Overcrowding a reality for now
Kehler said the John Howard Society's clients succeed with programs in which staff have small caseloads.
The success of such programs decreases the re-offending rate and, in turn, puts less pressure on jails, she said.
Swan said he believes the adult inmate population is shrinking thanks to programs that keep people from re-offending and new mental health and drug treatment courts.
He said the province is expanding some jails, but he acknowledged that overcrowding is a reality in the short term.
"We don't hang out a 'no vacancy' sign," he said.
"We know that public safety is a paramount consideration for people in Manitoba and in some cases, that has led to double-bunking or triple-bunking."
Swan said the provincial government also wants to expand bail supervision programs and bring cases to to trial more quickly.