Every Manitoba jail over capacity: Inmates 'will be living in tents,' warns advocate

Despite a scathing 2014 Auditor General's report and two years of effort, the number of people in Manitoba jails continues to rise.

John Howard Society says province needs to step up efforts to keep people out of jail

Multiple hands are seen holding bars at a prison.
Every provincially-run jail in Manitoba is overcrowded, new numbers show. (Shutterstock)

Every provincially-run jail in Manitoba has more inmates than what each facility is rated to hold.

There are 2,555 inmates in seven facilities — the capacity for all Manitoba jails is 2,010 inmates.

"People will be living in tents at some point. There is just too many people going into the system and not enough people going out and the solution isn't to build more jails," said John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society.

Overcrowding is most severe at the Headingley Correctional Centre. The capacity is 549, but there are 842 inmates inside. Six other Manitoba jails are also overcrowded.

  • Brandon Correctional Centre - 323 inmates (rated capacity 252). 
  • Dauphin Correctional Centre - 74 inmates (rated capacity 61).
  • Milner Ridge capacity - 551 inmates (rated capacity 524)
  • The Pas Correctional Centre - 180 inmates (rated capacity 114).
  • Women's Correctional Centre - 244 inmates (rated capacity 221).
  • Winnipeg Remand Centre  351 inmates (rated capacity 289).
Those prisoners waiting for court appearances and trials on remand make up 70 per cent of the adult population in Manitoba facilities and are housed in several locations.
Remand Centre in Winnipeg overcapacity. Spike in prisoners blamed on increase in number waiting for trial (CBC News )

The Manitoba government has made attempts in the past two years to lessen the backlog but despite those efforts, there's been a seven per cent increase in the inmate population since 2013.

Overcrowding in Manitoba jails puts pressure on inmates and staff and financial resources, said Hutton.
John Howard Society's John Hutton says prisoners will be living in tents if justice system doesn't improve (CBC News )

The prisoner-rights advocate said part of the increase in population at Manitoba jails is federal tough-on-crime legislation passed several years ago and the previous provincial NDP government's embrace of some of those decisions.

Manitoba's Auditor General produced a report in 2014 looking at managing the adult offenders. It found that adding new beds to the system was expensive and wasn't keeping up with the growing population. The Department added 651 beds with an increased capacity of 52 per cent since 2008 at a cost of $182 million. 

The number of prisoners grew and the salaries and operating costs to manage the offenders grew by 129 per cent, totaling $173 million in 2012/13.

Hutton said the province has to step up its efforts on programs to keep people out of system wherever safe and possible.

"We really need to have a serious conversation about alternatives to incarceration. Making bail easier, being less hard-nosed. Manitoba has the highest incarceration rates in the country," Hutton said.

Hutton thinks the province also has to become more tolerant on breaches for bail conditions.

Manitoba Justice embarked on a concerted effort to reduce prison populations following the Auditor General's report. The province established a court for mental health-based issues and a drug court.
NDP justice critic Andrew Swan says government has to invest in mental health/drug courts (CBC News )

NDP justice critic Andrew Swan believes those are the kind of programs that need more resources and attention.

"The mental health court is operating. We have said it should be expanded. It should be broadened to other places in Manitoba. We started the Winnipeg drug treatment court. Again, a great program. It should be expanded," Swan said.

Manitoba Justice; We are trying

The deputy minister of Manitoba Justice appeared before a legislative committee this week to explain, among other things, how the department was coping with the growing population

CBC News asked Manitoba Justice for other examples of where the department was trying to ease overcrowding. A spokesperson said efforts are underway to use restorative justice when possible in partnership with Indigenous communities.
Justice Minister Heather Stefanson blames previous NDP government for overcrowded jails (CBC News )

Manitoba Justice has also implemented the Intensive Case Assessment Process (ICAP) unit in prosecutions, the spokesperson said. They provide an initial assessment of cases as soon as charges are laid, identifying less serious matters that can be resolved more quickly to free up resources to deal with more serious criminal matters.

Other changes will be implemented in the near future, the spokesperson added.

Responding to questions in the Legislature Tuesday, Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said the problems didn't happen overnight and blamed "17 years of NDP mismanagement."

But Stefanson did admit there was a "crisis" in the system and vowed action.

"That is why I have called on the department to do a review from the beginning to the end of the justice system to ensure we create the efficiencies, to ensure we can reduce the number of people waiting on remand to alleviate some of the populations within our system," Stefanson told question period.