Manitoba ends practice of sending prisoners directly to jail before 1st court appearance

By | June 10, 2020

The Manitoba government is permanently ending a long-standing practice of automatically sending people who have been arrested to jail, before they are seen by a judge or justice of the peace, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said on Wednesday. 

The province originally suspended direct lockup agreements in April to avoid spreading COVID-19 in jails, but now the temporary, pandemic-induced decision will stick. 

Cullen said Manitoba will now be in line with every other province in Canada, all of which require police to house suspects in their facilities upon arrest.

“We’ve said to all chiefs that we will continue to support them in their efforts, and we will be there to support them financially as well,” Cullen told a conference call Wednesday, referring to $5 million in new law enforcement funding to pay for facility upgrades.

Before the pandemic, officers in Winnipeg and Brandon could transport people directly to a remand centre in situations involving violent individuals, or when someone accused of a crime is intoxicated and unable to make informed decisions.

Now, prisoners are only held in provincial jails after they’ve been remanded into custody by a judge or judicial justice of the peace. They will be kept at police headquarters beforehand.

Cops pulled off the street

“In all honesty, it’s disappointing,” Brandon Police Service Chief Wayne Balcaen said of the province’s decision.

Balcaen said officers have been taken off the streets to look after prisoners locked away at their headquarters. He wishes those new duties could be handled by somebody else.

“My preference would be to have police officers doing the work that they’re regularly doing.”

Brandon police are keeping prisoners in detention cells without bathrooms, sometimes for periods over 24 hours, he said.

Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth called on the government earlier this week to reverse the new practice, which he suggested was disregarding the respect and dignity of the people they arrest. 

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth called on the province to reverse a policy that ended the practice of direct lockups, but now it’s become permanent. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

He told Monday’s police board meeting that prisoners are being held for an unreasonable amount of time.

Smyth said the detention cells aren’t intended to hold people for hours on end. He described the cells as small rooms with nothing but a concrete bench. There are no toilets, no furniture, no mattresses and no food service.

The crowded rooms have led to fights involving prisoners. Some have urinated, defecated and vomited in their cells because there are no bathrooms, Smyth said.

More than 100 prisoners have been held for longer than 24 hours, including one individual for 43 hours, he said.

Staff at the facility are facing undue stress, Smyth said, as they escort prisoners for bathroom breaks, for phone calls with lawyers, and sometimes even buying prisoners their food.

The police force declined to comment Wednesday on the province’s announcement. 

In a letter to Smyth on Tuesday, Cullen wrote that shifting away from direct lockups, while necessary at the start of the pandemic, has “long-term merit.”

Of the 8,000 people admitted to the Winnipeg Remand Centre per year, almost half of them were ultimately suitable for release, the courts found.

Justice Minister Cliff Cullen wrote in a letter to Winnipeg’s police chief that moving away from direct lockups has ‘long-term merit.’ (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Cullen said the statistics demonstrate the status quo isn’t warranted.

“The admission and rapid release of prisoners creates administrative ‘churn’ and not only impacts the health and safety of correctional staff and inmates but the admission to custody itself is proven to increase the likelihood of reoffending or reinvolvement with the criminal justice system,” Cullen’s letter said.

The justice minister told reporters Wednesday it is “quite interesting” that Smyth said Monday his concerns regarding long prisoner holds were falling on deaf ears at the province. The two spoke last week, Cullen said.

Smyth said he took the matter to the police board because he had nowhere else to turn. 

Meanwhile, on the growing calls to defund police services since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Cullen said Wednesday that while municipalities can make their own decisions, he’s responsible for public safety. 

He said the Tory government will continue to devote resources to law enforcement and addressing the root causes of crime.

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