Manitoba’s adult jail population has fallen to its lowest level in a decade, declining by almost 30 per cent in the last two months in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.
As of May 4, there were 1,642 inmates in Manitoba’s seven correctional facilities — 618 fewer than on Feb. 20, before the pandemic hit Canada, according to figures from Manitoba Justice.
Manitoba’s provincial jails haven’t been that empty since 2009-10, when the daily average was 1,780 adult inmates.
“This pandemic has created change, and I believe created change for the better,” Justice Minister Cliff Cullen told CBC News.
“We are seeing the justice system come together. And I believe this system is functioning better than it has in the past. It’s more effective, more efficient and more timely.”
The Winnipeg Remand Centre — the province’s pre-trial detention centre — had 160 inmates as of May 4, a stark drop from the roughly 300 inmates typically held in the centre at any given point over the previous few years.
Manitoba has struggled for years with overcrowding in its provincial jails and high incarceration rates.
In 2015, CBC News found almost every jail was over its rated capacity, and 70 per cent of inmates were in jail on remand — meaning they are in custody, but have not been convicted and are awaiting trial or further court appearances.
At that time, six of the seven Manitoba jails were over their capacity, as was the case in February.
As of this month, only Headingley — the largest jail in Manitoba — is considered over its rated capacity.
While Cullen says no directive was given to the Crowns or judiciaries to release inmates, efforts were made by all parties to look at how they can get people on remand out of jail.
“A high percentage of our population has been in remand waiting for the opportunity to have their cases reviewed by a judge. We’ve expedited that process,” he said, adding that has resulted in “more timely access to justice, which Manitobans, I think, are looking for.”
Manitoba’s jail population decrease mirrors what has been happening across the country in response to COVID-19, as provinces look to minimize the risk of potentially deadly outbreaks in correctional facilities.
Ontario had to shut down a Brampton jail after at least 60 inmates and eight workers there tested positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Mission Institution in British Columbia is experiencing the largest federal prison outbreak in Canada. The B.C. government said over the weekend that 133 inmates and staff have tested positive for COVID-19.
So far, two inmates have died from complications related to the illness caused by the novel coronavirus in federal Canadian prisons — one in British Columbia and the other in Quebec.
No inmates in Manitoba have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the province.
Balanced approach needed: union
Winnipeg defence attorney Chris Gamby says he has seen significant changes since the beginning of the pandemic — more people getting bail, more early releases, time-served sentences that mean the inmate is released, and other mechanisms that result in fewer people being incarcerated.
“It appears as though everybody has an interest in seeing the jails not over capacity at this time,” he said.
“I’ve got clients who are out who previously would have been in [jail], and likely to stay for an extended period. Those individuals are now out and about on the street, under conditions.”
The president of the union that represents Manitoba’s correctional officers says fewer inmates means fewer hours for part-time staff, but there have been no layoffs of correctional officers so far.
But Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Michelle Gawronsky worries about what impact these releases may have on the safety of the community. She says a balanced approach is needed.
“Everything needs to be weighed carefully.… What [has] been their criminal history? What have they done in the past? What is the level of the crime?” she said.
“The [correctional] officers are saying that whenever there is a release, the first consideration needs to be on the safety and the protection of public safety.”
Canada overuses jails: former ombudsman
Howard Sapers, who spent over a decade as Canada’s federal correctional investigator — a prison watchdog that provides independent oversight for Canada’s correctional system — says jail populations are decreasing across the country.
For example, he noted more than 2,300 inmates have been released from Ontario jails during the pandemic.
“What it tells me about how we use jail, in general, is that we overuse it,” said Sapers.
“If it’s safe to release these people now, or to not incarcerate them to begin with … then it was probably safe before we had this virus. We’ve gotten very comfortable with using custody when we really don’t have to.”
Sapers, Gamby and Cullen all want to see these changes remain in place post-pandemic.
“I think smart and engaged policymakers will be paying attention to this, if for no other reason than to free up some tax dollars to spend in other areas where they’ll do more good,” Sapers said.
“But also, there’s a terrible human cost to over-incarceration. And I think we need to pay attention to that. Not everybody that’s sitting in a jail cell tonight actually needs to be there. We’ve known that for a long time.”
Cullen calls the decline in jail population a good news story for Manitoba.
“We have tremendous momentum here,” he said.
“And I hope we can continue with this momentum into the future.”
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