Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Police in Winnipeg, Brandon holding prisoners at headquarters as coronavirus forces changes for Manitoba jails

Manitoba Justice has suspended its direct lockup agreements with police agencies and is no longer taking prisoners to provincial jails, unless they are remanded into custody by a judge or judicial justice of the peace.

Brandon police looking for more space to put offenders arrested by officers

The Winnipeg Police Service says it’s had to take drastic measures in order to house offenders arrested by its officers because the Winnipeg Remand Centre will no longer hold people awaiting bail. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Manitoba Justice has suspended its direct lockup agreements with police agencies due to the coronavirus pandemic, and is no longer accepting prisoners into provincial jails unless they are remanded into custody by a judge or judicial justice of the peace.

Normally, under some circumstances — such as situations involving violent individuals, or someone accused of a crime who is intoxicated and unable to make informed decisions — police could transport people directly to a remand centre without having a bail hearing.

Under the new rules, that is no longer an option. Police now have to house those individuals until the courts remand them into custody, or they are ordered released.

That's left the Winnipeg Police Service holding prisoners at police headquarters until a hearing can take place before a justice of the peace or a judge.

"Changes made by Manitoba Justice have caused a significant realignment of WPS personnel and procedures,"said Winnipeg police Const. Rob Carver.

Winnipeg Police Service spokesperson Const. Rob Carver won't say if police are releasing more people as a result of changes to Manitoba Justice policies. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The changes came into effect on April 2, according to Manitoba Justice, and have been made to avoid spreading the coronavirus in provincial jails.

"Officers have been reminded that all arrested persons who are eligible for release should be released without bringing them to police stations, in order to protect the health and safety of our members, our facilities and the prisoners themselves," Carver said.

The service isn't saying whether more people have been released as a result.

If a person is denied release, they are sent to the Winnipeg Remand Centre and quarantined before being admitted to the general population of the jail, or are transferred to another provincial correctional facility.

"All individuals coming into custody are isolated for up to 14 days to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 into facilities," said a Manitoba Justice spokesperson in an email to CBC News.

No visitors are allowed in and all inmate programs, staff training and other group activities have been suspended.

The province says it's following the advice of public health officials and experts in order to manage inmate populations amid the risks posed by COVID-19.

"Corrections is continuing to manage inmate populations under existing legislative authority … and with full consideration of risks to public safety," the Manitoba Justice spokesperson said.

"We are in regular communication with other provinces and territories to share best practices and learn from each other," the spokesperson said.

Brandon police looking for additional space

The Brandon Police Service has also reassigned officers to look after people arrested by its officers, after the Brandon Correctional Centre stopped detaining individuals awaiting bail. 

They are now being housed at police headquarters until they get a court hearing via teleconference, within 24 hours of arrest.

"We are required to facilitate phone conversations between defence lawyers, Crown attorneys, [judicial justices of the peace], court officials, and the arrestee on a daily or as needed basis," said Brandon police Sgt. Kirby Sararas. 

Brandon police are also looking at expanding detention capacity in case that's required. 

Sgt. Kirby Sararas says the Brandon Police Service is looking for additional space to house prisoners just in case a large number of people are arrested and need to be detained. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

"BPS has been looking into additional spaces to house arrestees, on the off chance that we suddenly have an influx of arrests at once," said Sararas. 

"We are confident that we have the ability to temporarily house our present number of arrestees; however, we want to be prepared should the need arise."

  •  Got a tip for CBC Manitoba's I-Team to investigate? Email or call the confidential tip line at 204-788-3744.

The province says Crown attorneys and the courts are prioritizing bail hearings and custody issues to ensure no unnecessary delays result in rising remand counts. 

"Historically, statistics show 50 to 60 per cent of people admitted to remand custody are released within a few days after having a bail hearing, or a consent release or a disposition," said Manitoba provincial court Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe.

Additional court hearings have been set up to deal with those applications, "which would potentially see the person released and not enter remand custody at all," she said.

As well, inmates serving weekend sentences in provincial jails have been given temporary leave to allow for physical distancing and to reduce the number of people entering facilities.

"While they are on temporary absence, they are expected to stay in their homes for the entire weekend. Each inmate is serving sentences as issued by the courts and it varies from offender to offender," a government spokesperson said.

On Friday the province said there were 1,731 adults and 76 youth in provincial custody in Manitoba. None have tested positive for COVID-19.

Changes to court process in northern communities

Wiebe said in northern Manitoba, where travel restrictions are in place and many First Nations communities are on lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the province has implemented measures to allow offenders to stay on reserve while awaiting a hearing.

Efforts to stop the spread of the virus have raised the concern, Wiebe says, that a person arrested and transported out of their community for a hearing might not be allowed back.

Wiebe said provincial court judges and justices of the peace are holding bail hearings and dispositions from within the RCMP facility in northern communities. 

"In this way, if a person is not to be remanded into custody, they can return to their community immediately and not be refused entry because they left to have a court hearing outside the community," said Wiebe. 

About the Author

Caroline Barghout

Investigative Reporter, CBC Manitoba I-Team

Caroline began her career co-hosting an internet radio talk show in Toronto and then worked at various stations in Oshawa, Sudbury and Toronto before landing in Winnipeg in 2007. Since joining CBC Manitoba as a reporter in 2013, she has won an award for her work on crowded jails and her investigation into Tina Fontaine's death led to changes in the child welfare system. Email: caroline.barghout@cbc.ca

now