Ontario NDP blasts government over Thunder Bay jail, says facility remains a 'powder keg'

The Ontario NDP is taking aim at the provincial government over how long it's taking to build a facility to replace a nearly-century-old jail in Thunder Bay, Ont.

New facility coming in '5 to 7 years,' province says, longer than recommended by independent review

NDP leader Andrea Horwath called the Thunder Bay District Jail a "powder keg" during a question in Queen's Park on Monday. (CBC)

The Ontario NDP is taking aim at the provincial government over how long it's taking to build a facility to replace a nearly-century-old jail in Thunder Bay, Ont.

During question period at Queen's Park Monday morning, New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath called the facility "a powder keg," and charged that conditions in the jail haven't changed since 2015, when a riot broke out and a corrections officer was taken hostage.

"When I was in Thunder Bay last week, I learned that all of the conditions that led to the riot, the hostage-taking ... still exist at the Thunder Bay jail," she said.

"[It's] not designed for the number of inmates that it houses, there are staff shortages, inadequate equipment and no sign that this Liberal government is doing anything but pushing the problem down the road."

Horwath said she wanted to know when people can expect "shovels in the ground," on a new facility.

An interim report released in May by Howard Sapers, who was appointed by the Wynne government to conduct an independent review of the corrections system in Ontario, recommended that a replacement for the Thunder Bay District Jail be operating within three to five years. The province announced funding for a new jail the same day but did not specify details about a location or a timeline for its completion.
Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Marie-France Lalonde says Ontario is working through recommendations made by an independent review of Ontario's corrections system, including a new jail in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

Corrections minister Marie-France Lalonde acknowledged Sapers's report when responding to Horwath's query on Monday and said the province is "working through those recommendations."

"We made the announcement for new infrastructure ... and we will be moving forward in that transformation."

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services told CBC News Monday that site selection is expected to be completed "within the next couple of years" and the facility should be operational in five to seven years. The ministry added that the contract is slated to go out for tender "in the coming months."
A riot and hostage-taking took place in 2015 at the Thunder Bay District Jail. (Jody Porter/CBC)

In the meantime, the province said some work will be done on the existing jail, including replacing windows, replacing cell doors in one unit and installing sally ports — or secured entrances — in each of the nine living units "to enhance health and safety."

The ministry said that an ongoing infrastructure review will "identify the scope of the need for improvements to help prioritize any funding decisions."

Horwath charged that the Thunder Bay jail is "badly overcrowded and wholly inadequate."

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, the union that represents a number of corrections workers in the province's facilities, has also called for sweeping changes to the corrections system and a new jail in Thunder Bay.