No plan to build new Dauphin jail, Manitoba justice minister says after facility promised in 2013

Despite an inquest report that suggests the age of Dauphin’s jail may have played a role in an inmate’s death, Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen says plans to build a new facility, first announced in 2013, are currently on hold.

Inquest report released this week suggested existing jail's age may have played role in inmate's death

Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said issues surrounding access to Dauphin's courthouse and the adjoining jail are being looked at, but there are no plans to build a new facility right now. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Despite an inquest report that suggests the age of Dauphin's jail may have played a role in an inmate's death, Manitoba's justice minister says there are no current plans to build a new facility.   

The NDP provincial government announced plans to replace the jail, which is now more than a century old, in 2013. Land had been donated by the City of Dauphin and surrounding rural municipality at the time, and a request for proposals was issued in 2014. 

After the Progressive Conservatives were elected in 2016, then-justice minister Heather Stefanson said the new jail proposal was being looked at in a review of the province's capital projects, according to an exchange about the facility in question period. 

Now, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen says the province can now do without it.

"It's certainly nothing that we have [planned] in the near future," he told CBC News at an event in Brandon on Thursday. "We can accommodate our [inmate] counts on the correction side within our existing facilities."

An inquest report into the 2016 death of Dauphin inmate Freeman Zong, 26, which was released this week, says the facility is the oldest jail in the province. Its design is outdated, the report said, compared to the other eight provincially run correctional facilities.

Zong was found hanging in a shower area of the correctional centre on July 14, 2016, and later pronounced dead.

In her report, Judge Christine Harapiak found the design of the vents in the centre's washroom and shower areas played a role in the hanging death.

Her report also said that due to the building's design, guards couldn't always see inmates or what was going on in the remand unit. Newer jails have more open concepts, an official with Manitoba Corrections testified at the inquest.

Some changes have already been made at the Dauphin jail since Zong's death, the report noted. Remand bathrooms have been renovated to make them more "open concept," and bathroom vents have been replaced with new security vents. Harapiak recommended replacing the remaining vents with security vents.

As well, the report says, a new desk and closed-circuit TV monitor were installed to allow staff to view the remand units at any time.

But more work is still needed at the 61-inmate facility, says the union that represents workers there.

"It's in desperate need of repair," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union.

"The jail is one of the largest employers in that city," she said. "The folks that are working there, the families that have loved ones working there, they deserve to know what their future holds."

Cullen said the age of the facility has been taken into account.  

"Certainly it's … aging infrastructure," he said of the jail, and the adjoining courthouse. "We know there's been issues around access to the courthouse, so we're looking at some options there."

According to the request for proposals issued in 2014, the province had intended to build a 180-bed facility, meant to ease pressure on jails in Brandon and The Pas. 

The justice minister says that's no longer needed.

"Our custody counts are certainly down from where we were at the high-level mark," said Cullen. "Currently we can facilitate the numbers we have at the existing facilities across the province." 

Gawronsky, though, says the province should be looking to increase capacity at provincial jails, especially in light of a promise from the province to crack down on crime.

"It's disappointing that there is no plan to move forward with this," she said.