Thunder Bay·In Depth

As Ontario eyes correctional expansions in the north, skepticism, alternatives to incarceration emerge

Ontario's Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said she was excited about the province's announcement on Monday that it would invest in expansions to the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre and the Kenora Jail. But aside from a tentative timeline, details about the new spaces were scarce.

The provincial government plans to expand Thunder Bay Correctional Centre and Kenora Jail

The Ontario government announced it was investing in expanded spaces at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre and the Kenora Jail to create more room for programming and improve safety at the facilities. (Shutterstock)

Ontario's Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said she was excited about the province's announcement on Monday that it would invest in expansions to the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre and the Kenora Jail.

But aside from a tentative timeline, details about the new spaces are scarce.

The size of the expansions: unknown. What the structures will look like: to be determined. The cost for the projects: not disclosed.

According to Jones, all those answers hinge on the results of environmental assessments currently being completed at both sites and further consultation. 

This morning, the province announced it plans to expand the correctional facilities in Thunder Bay and Kenora. The government says that will help improve safety at the facilities and create spaces for programming. Up North's Logan Turner told us what this announcement means. 8:28

The hope, says Jones, is that both projects will be tendered and completed by the spring of 2022, and they will "increase our ability to provide the programming that we would like and we need to have."

But that timeline, the functionality of the new spaces, and the wisdom of the investments were all quickly questioned by stakeholders across the province.

Expansion projects a 'knee-jerk' reaction

The investments come amidst ongoing criticism and shocking revelations about the conditions in correctional facilities across northwestern Ontario, where the majority of those in custody are awaiting trial.

At the Kenora Jail, 94 per cent of the inmates are Indigenous, according to testimony reviewed during an Ontario Court of Justice ruling earlier this month in which the judge referred to the "brutalizing experiences" of First Nations people held there. 

Cells built to hold two people are frequently crowded with four, requiring one person to sleep next to the toilet and another underneath the lowest bunk, according to the jail's superintendent who told the court that frequent lockdowns require people to be held in those close quarters for hours or days at a time.

The problems at correctional facilities in both Thunder Bay and Kenora have been well-documented. There's overcrowding, an extreme over-representation of Indigenous people, staffing shortages, violence, overdoses and death. The Ontario governement has announced plans to expand the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, just outside the city, and the Kenora Jail to help alleviate overcrowding and improve safety. While the announcement was welcomed by some, other people suggest that the funds for that project could be spent on trying to eliminate some of the factors contributing to incarceration. Stephanie Silverman is a research associate at the Center for Refugees Studies at York University and a partner at the Thinking Forward Network. She argues the goal should be "decarceration" and ultimately closing the jails. 8:45

Conditions are similar at the Thunder Bay District Jail, where inquests into deaths at the facility have highlighted  the overcrowding, high levels of violence and overdoses, over-representation of Indigenous populations and persistent staffing issues. A spokesperson with the Ministry of the Solicitor General confirmed that there have been a total of 13 deaths at the Thunder Bay District Jail since 2002, with at least seven of them being Indigenous men.

And demands are growing on the province to provide interim supports to correctional officers working in the region as they wait for the construction of the long-promised 325-bed Thunder Bay Correctional Complex, which isn't expected to be ready until at least late-2024.

The complex would replace both the Thunder Bay District Jail and the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre.

So this announcement felt like a "knee-jerk" reaction to Shawn Bradshaw, president of the OPSEU Local 708, which represents correctional officers at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre.

He said, "the plan has been sort of bandied around, but no real hard commitment, no real sharing of information and…there's a whole lot of input that we're not being involved in at a ministerial level."

Bradshaw says he also doubts the facilities will be ready for their intended use according to the province's plan.

"I don't believe it. Be operational by spring 2022? Cut the pipe dream, we're already at the end of 2020."

The provincial announcement comes as union leaders are asking for more support at correctional facilities in northwestern Ontario and concerns grow about the levels of overcrowding and violence at the Thunder Bay District Jail. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

He added persistent staffing issues, which have been exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions in the correctional facilities and challenges with recruiting and training new staff, will determine how effective the new spaces will be. 

"We can't run programs without staff. So all these things that they're attributing on the back end [like additional programming] can't happen until we have a staffing model that complements that."

Indigenous leaders demand improvements to justice system, alternatives to incarceration

Following the death of his nephew Kevin Mamakwa at the Thunder Bay Jail in June 2020, the ninth person to have died at the jail since 2002, NDP Member of Provincial Parliament Sol Mamakwa demanded the immediate closure of the Thunder Bay District Jail.

"This jail is not safe. And whether it's another facility or not…it's not addressing the system," Mamakwa said, adding  "a new jail alone is not the final solution, right? We need to be able to see real transformation in a way with prisons less packed, with things like alternative sentencing, dealing with the root cause of crime."

The NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong, Sol Mamakwa, called for the closure of the Thunder Bay District Jail in June 2020 after his nephew died at the facility while waiting for his trial. Mamakwa says the facility is dangerous for everyone. (Supplied by Sol Mamakwa)

Derek Fox, a Deputy Grand Chief with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, welcomed the announcement of the expansions with some "optimism," but also called for more work to find alternative solutions to address the "deeply rooted issues…that may be out of our control when it comes to the crimes being committed."

"I think if you're able to provide that interim measure for the safety of all those in our facilities while we continue to work on the long-term solutions, I think that's better than the status quo."

Fox pointed to ongoing work to develop the Kenora Justice Centre, an initiative created with the support of the provincial government that is designed to reduce crime rates and address root causes of the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, as an example of efforts to create alternative solutions

A balance between urgent needs and building a future without jails

Everything about the ongoing saga with the Thunder Bay District Jail is remarkably familiar to Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa and a co-founding member of the Criminalization Punishment Education Project (CPEP).

A few years ago, the province announced it would be building a bigger jail to replace the similarly overcrowded, problem-plagued Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC).

But Piché and his group started a campaign to stop the construction of a bigger jail and have those funds be re-directed toward community-based alternatives.

Whether it's in an old building or a new one, there's certain issues you cannot remedy within the context of a human cage.- Justin ​​​​​​Piché, associate professor of criminology at University of Ottawa

"A prison is a prison at the end of the day. Whether it's in an old building or a new one, there's certain issues you cannot remedy within the context of a human cage. Fundamentally, what we're talking about here is forcible confinement, which is very vulnerable to over-reaches of state power and coercion and violence."

He added that while his group worked toward their ultimate goal of prison abolition, "we also recognized the need to address the material needs of prisoners who are experiencing human rights abuses on a daily basis at the jail right now."

So the project launched JAIL—the Jail Accountability and Information Line—in December 2019. It's a hotline that inmates at the OCDC or their family members can call to report abuses and be directed to support services.

Piché said the hotline has taken more than 6,000 calls in the last 21 months and has worked to "move the needle" on some issues like ensuring an inmate with a broken bone received medical attention and ensuring Muslim inmates observing Ramadan have access necessary dietary adjustments.

Justin Piché says there is also a lot that goes on in jails and correctional centres that we don't know. He is a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa. He studies correctional systems in Canada and knows just how hard it can be to access and verify information from those institutions. It's part of the reason he co-founded the Jail Accountability and Information Line. It's a hotline for inmates of the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre and their loved ones to call with the hope of improving conditions inside the facility, and to help inmates safely re-enter the community at the end of their sentences. Piché says northern Ontario has the resources and could "move the needle" with its own hotline for inmates. 11:06

Piché said he thinks a similar initiative could help people in northwestern Ontario work to improve conditions for inmates in district correctional facilities while simultaneously working toward alternative justice initiatives.

Ultimately, Piché says whether there are newer jails or bigger jails or the same jails, "we're going to keep seeing these human rights abuses so long as prisons exist."

With files from Jody Porter.