Manitoba government to close beds at Milner Ridge Correctional Centre

The Manitoba government is poised to cut back capacity at one the province’s largest jails.

Justice Minister says decision made due to declining prison population

The province is set to close 56 beds at Milner Ridge Correctional Centre next month. (CBC)

The Manitoba government is poised to cut back capacity at one the province's largest jails.

The move to close 56 beds at Milner Ridge Correctional Centre in mid-October comes as the stats in Winnipeg and across the province show crime rates are on the rise.

That worries the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents correction officers working in Manitoba's correctional facilities including Milner Ridge.

"Our concern is for public and staff safety. Whether offenders are incarcerated or in the community, they should have the supervision and programming to protect the public and support rehabilitation," said MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky in a statement Friday.

"According to Stats Canada, for three years in a row violent crime has been increasing in Winnipeg — but at the same time, our jail counts are down, and funding for support and addictions programs have been frozen.

"It doesn't seem like the province is putting public safety first because the numbers just don't add up."

According to numbers from Winnipeg police released in July, compared to the five-year average, violent crime was up 10 per cent in the city and property crime rose 17 per cent last year.

In addition, the report says the number of drug crimes has risen 15 per cent over 2016 numbers.

Drugs, particularly the growing use of methamphetamine, are fuelling the rise in crime, police Chief Danny Symth said at the time.

Numbers from Statistics Canada also show higher crime rates were reported in rural areas of Manitoba in 2017 as well.

In 2017, per capita crime rates in rural Manitoba were 42 per cent higher than crime rates in urban areas, according to a report released by Statistics Canada in July.

Not about money: minister

Milner Ridge, located in the Agassiz Provincial Forest, roughly 20 km southwest of Lac du Bonnet, Man., is a minimum-, medium- and maximum-security facility with a capacity of 524 men.

It's Manitoba's second-largest provincial jail behind Headingley Correctional Centre which can hold 549 men.

Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen told CBC News the decision to close the beds comes as Milner Ridge's average population has fallen to around 410. Staff was notified of the decision Thursday, he said.

Cullen said the decision was not made to save money.

"The decision to close these units is a responsible reallocation of resources given the reality of declining incarceration rates in Manitoba," he said in a statement, adding the province's incarceration rate has fallen from 2,454 in 2016 to 2,081 today.

Cullen pointed to the government's criminal justice system modernization strategy, which aims to divert more people away from jail, as among the reasons why jail population numbers have dropped.

Measures in the strategy, which was announced in March, include crime prevention, more effective use of restorative justice, targeted resources for serious criminal cases and responsible reintegration of offenders, said Cullen.

"We believe that these measures, along with strategic investments in policing, will reduce crime over the long-term," he said.

The bed closures will not see any staff laid off at Milner Ridge, said Cullen, but will mean changes to staff schedules and shifts.

There was no word on whether there will be further bed closures at any of the province's other correctional facilities.