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Correctional centre 50-bed expansion ‘not nearly enough’

The 50-bed expansion at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre is complete and nearly fully occupied, but union representatives say overcrowding will remain a significant issue until a new facility is complete in 2026

THUNDER BAY — Despite 50 new inmate beds now available, the two correctional facilities in the city remain at or above capacity, a trend that continues to be seen across the entire region.

“These 50 beds are not nearly enough, but for the style of build we are filling it effectively,” said Shawn Bradshaw, OPSEU Local 708 president, representing workers at the Thunder bay Correctional Centre.

Work on the 50-bed modular expansion at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre began in May 2021 and was part of a commitment made by the provincial government the previous year to alleviate overcrowding at the facility and the Thunder Bay District Jail.

The provincial government also committed to the construction of a brand new 350-bed facility expected to be completed in 2026.

But according to Bradshaw, it will not be long before the new facility is full as well.

“The bigger facility they are building and committed to, we are probably pushing the pace of that limit in a hurry,” he said. “We are currently housing around 130 male inmates and 32 female inmates. The numbers I’ve seen at the jail lead me to believe we will be over 300 with just our bodies but we’ve also had to ship a number of bodies to bigger institutions in the south to manage.”

Of the 50 new beds in the expansion, 45 are occupied, with the remaining five being vacant as health and safety issues are addressed.

Both the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre and the Thunder Bay District Jail regularly experience severe overcrowding, which puts both staff and inmates at risk.

“We are very overcrowded at the jail,” said Bill Hayes, president of OPSEU Local 737 representing staff at the Thunder Bay District Jail. “It is making working conditions difficult and difficult to get our programming and supports for the inmates accomplished.”  

According to Hayes, there were 133 inmates housed at the district jail Thursday morning and every day more spaces are needed.

“It is a constant battle of trying to move inmates out of there and the correctional centre helps out as much as possible and is doing more than anyone else in the province right now, but they are overcrowded and facing capacity issues as well,” he said.

Issues of overcrowding are being experienced at institutions across the region, Hayes said, with communities using facilities that are too small and there not being enough staff available.

A 50-bed expansion was also built for the Kenora Jail, but it is yet to see any inmates as there is not enough staff to open the space.

“A new building is sitting there vacant without an ability to staff it,” Hayes said. “The government really needs to step up in attracting staff. A way they can do that is coming to the bargaining table. We’ve been without a contract for a year-and-a-half.”

As part of the expansion at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, the provincial government committed to hiring 26 new full-time staff, but Bradshaw said that initial commitment did not include support or recreational staff.

Bradshaw added that the government needs to commit to hiring more of these officers in order to reduce safety risks inside these kinds of facilities.  

“When you run institutions similar to these with the security levels that we have, what keeps the facility running and the officers and inmates safe is positive activities,” Bradshaw said. “When inmates are not occupied with positive activities they tend to find negative activities to fall to.”

With the new facility still three years away, Hayes said issues of overcrowding are not going to go away and it will continue to put staff and inmates at risk. Earlier this week, two inmates were injured in an assault at the District Jail.

“When you are overcrowding, tensions get high and people don’t always get along,” he said. “When we have space we can separate them but we are at a point where there is nowhere to put them. It’s hard to do those adjustments.”

In an effort to alleviate overcrowding, inmates from the region are often sent to other institutions in the province, which is something Bradshaw said will need to continue.

“We are doing everything we can locally but we are going to need help from institutions outside of our jurisdiction to alleviate the issues we are having,” he said. “We are currently taking on just about as many as we can in these facilities.”

Doug Diaczuk

About the Author: Doug Diaczuk

Doug Diaczuk is a reporter and award-winning author from Thunder Bay. He has a master’s degree in English from Lakehead University
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