Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay jail overcrowding a 'crisis,' corrections union says

Overcrowding at the Thunder Bay District Jail has become a "crisis," the union representing the jail's staff said.

Nearly 200 inmates held at jail; normal capacity is about 140

The Thunder Bay Jail is in a crisis of overcrowding, the union representing staff there said. (Jody Porter/CBC)

Overcrowding at the Thunder Bay District Jail has become a "crisis," the union representing the jail's staff said.

On Friday, 194 inmates were being held at the jail, said Brad Slobodian, a correctional officer there and president of OPSEU Local 737, which represents jail's staff.

Slobodian said the jail has a capacity of about 140, if there are two inmates per cell.

"We're 54 over that, so we've got three people in a cell, sometimes four," he said. "This is astronomically high."

Inmate-on-inmate violence

Slobodian said the conditions are leading to violence.

"There's more assaults, especially inmate-on-inmate assaults," he said, adding that inmate-on-officer assaults are also happening, but there are fewer of those incidents.

There are several reasons for the overcrowding, Slobodian said. The jail's age — the building is nearly a century old — is a factor, for one, as is its relatively-small size.

A big part of the problem is the recent influx of gang members from southern Ontario, who come to Thunder Bay due to the city's lucrative illegal drug trade, he said.

"We've never seen that kind of inmate before," he said. "We have to keep certain people away from each other in there, because they're rival gangs, and that's a challenge considering the space we have."

"It's only going to get worse."

'Overwhelming' for staff

The gangs are also a problem for the correctional officers themselves, said Greg Arnold, a provincial bailiff who's assigned to the Thunder Bay Jail, and a member of the provincial corrections bargaining team. 

"Basically, what we're seeing is a higher percentage of clientele that we don't know," he said. "They are trying to take over the drug trade, and what has happened with the increased amount of the offenders incarcerated at the jail, and with the unknowns, there's violence."

"We're trying to keep the peace, and it is becoming overwhelming for the staff."

The jail, meanwhile, is still feeling the effects of a 2015 incident that saw a corrections officer taken hostage by a inmates there. A similar situation took place at the Kenora Jail last year.

Some staff members at both jails remain off-duty because of those incidents, Arnold said.

Slow court process

"Our staff, they're stressed to the max," Slobodian said. "Eighty per cent of our staff have two years or less seniority."

"There was a hiring freeze back in 2011-12 that the [Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services] did, and it's still affecting us today."

Both Arnold and Slobodian also said the slow court system in Thunder Bay is a major factor in the jail's overcrowding crisis, with cases taking a long time to resolve, and offenders sometimes seeing repeated remands into custody.

"Seventy per cent, probably 75 per cent of our jail space is remanded offenders," Arnold said. "Maybe even closer to eighty. And there's no room."

Meanwhile, the jails in Kenora and Sault Ste. Marie are also full, which means there aren't many options for transferring prisoners in the case of overcrowding.

Transfers to southern Ontario

"What's been happening the last couple of years, is the population is so great in the Kenora Jail, the population is so high in Thunder Bay, that we are actually remanding offenders .. as far away as Toronto, Milton, and Penetanguishene," he said. "We're driving people a thousand miles away, and they have a remand date in [Thunder Bay] court, and they have to be back in court in two or three weeks, simply because there's no room."

The ultimate answer, Slobodian said, is the new, 325-bed correctional facility that was announced in 2017 by the previous provincial government. 

However, construction has yet to actually start.

"As far as I'm told, it's a go," Slobodian said. "But it was supposed to be a go back in 2002, and the PCs quashed it then."

In a written statement provided to CBC News, ministry spokesman Brent Ross said the ministry is aware of overcrowding at the Thunder Bay Jail.

The ministry is working to relocate inmates to other correctional facilities in the northwestern region.

"We recognise that overcrowding can have an impact on both our staff and inmates," the statement reads. "Our frontline correctional employees do a difficult but vital job, under very challenging conditions."

"For their service and contributions to public safety, we not only thank them, but promise to give them the additional infrastructure, tools and supports they need to keep themselves and all those in our custody safe."

Ross said the government is still developing the request for proposal for the construction of the new Thunder Bay correctional centre, and will "have more to say on timelines soon."