With a new jail years away from being operational, local union calls for interim support
The new Thunder Bay Correctional Complex not expected to be operational until late-2024 at the earliest
Amidst calls for the Thunder Bay District Jail to close and ongoing conversations about the blueprints for the promised and long-awaited facility, union leadership from the jail is asking the province for immediate support to address overcrowding and safety concerns in the interim.
Bill Hayes, a corrections officer at the Thunder Bay District Jail and the president of the OPSEU Local 737 Union, said he would like to see a regional intermittent centre, similar to what has been used in recent years in London, Ont., constructed in the district to ease the pressures currently being experienced.
"It would be a tremendous load off our back. We'd be able to finally breathe again and tensions would release on both sides. The biggest thing we're dealing with is space as well as staffing issues. But if we get ... a temporary institution to ease the pressures from the Thunder Bay Jail ... staff morale as well as the inmate spirits would be up," said Hayes.
"We'd probably be able to accomplish more of what the government expects us to accomplish and what the inmates actually deserve, like their fresh air, their times out, and possibly even programming again," he added.
Overcrowding and safety concerns at the local jail are certainly not new. In early 2019, it was reported that 194 inmates were being held at the jail, a facility that only has capacity for about 140 people. At least nine men have died while at the facility since 2002, with seven of them being Indigenous men, and there have been a series of reports of violence and harms caused to inmates, correctional officers and other staff.
To address some of the overcrowding, Hayes said inmates have been transferred to other jails across the province, including the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre and as far south as the Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishene, Ont., just north of Barrie.
"They've kind of been taking up our slack. Right now, we have probably about 100 inmates throughout the province that aren't in our institution that we could not even consider taking back because we don't have the space," Hayes added.
"We've had to look at these other options [to temporarily house inmates in Thunder Bay] because we've had to have people ... like they've been forced to live in interview booths, visiting areas and our programming room."
The new combined correctional complex still years away
Union leadership from both the jail and the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre have taken part in meetings with the provincial government this week to pore over blueprints and provide feedback on the drawings.
Shawn Bradshaw, president of the OPSEU Local 708, said the conversations he is having with ministry staff suggest that the new 325-bed Thunder Bay Correctional Complex will not be completely built and operational before late-2024 or early-2025, and said the change in government and onset of the COVID-19 pandemic set plans back by about eight months.
"As slow as the process is and frustrating as it is, nobody wants to build a half-billion dollar facility that is useless. But at the same token we don't want to rush to throw something up and it be no better than what we have, you know? So it is frustrating. It's frustrating for us. We got to work there. And it's frustrating seeing the human toll that it takes on the staff and the inmates that live in the jail."
After looking at the blueprints, Bradshaw said, "basically the idea is going to more normalized living arrangement, more space for the inmates. The single-cell occupancies, some cells will have two bunks but most will be - in the concepts anyway - will be single bunks to provide them the privacy and safety of being in their own area."
He added, "the new facility has a lot of programs and rehabilitative ideas in mind. A lot of it is ministry core-driven programs that exist, but we haven't been able to facilitate."
The new corrections complex was promised by the previous Liberal government in 2017 and re-promised under the new provincial government in 2019.
Province 'exploring very actively' interim supports
Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones acknowledged that the new facility will not be operational for several years.
"I admit that it would be wonderful if we could have something up and running in months instead of years. But I also know that our our institutions are not built for five or 10 years. We have institutions that are still serving as jails in the province of Ontario that are approaching 100 years old. So it's very important to me that we get it right."
Jones said she hopes the request-for-proposal - the stage where short-listed companies are invited to make a bid for the contract to construct the new facility - will be issued by the end of 2020.
In the meantime, the provincial government is looking at interim measures to support correctional centres, officers and inmates.
"We are exploring very actively other opportunities that can assist in the interim, which is why last week we announced the $500 million in corrections to hire both staff and to modernize some of the outdated correctional infrastructure."
While Jones would not say what those measures may be, she did say that she was hoping to provide further details in an announcement sometime in Fall 2020.