THUNDER BAY – A rising inmate count at the Thunder Bay District Jail is threatening the safety of everyone inside the facility.
Mike Lundy, the co-chair of the provincial health and safety committee for corrections workers, earlier this week contacted the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services’ northern regional director Kathy Kinger, asking for help to manage overcrowding at the Thunder Bay District Jail.
The nearly century-old jail, which has space for 147 beds, reached an inmate population of nearly 200 earlier this week.
“The counts are alarmingly high. Higher than I’ve ever seen in 15 years,” Lundy said on Friday.
“With 198 inmates, you can only imagine how we’re trying to house them. What happens with that is increased tensions and more assaults. A lot of the same things that led to the 2015 riot but now we’ve exponentially gone higher with the numbers. It’s getting scary in there for the staff.”
Lundy said he received an immediate response from Kinger and there have been discussions about possible ways to alleviate some of the pressure.
The Thunder Bay jail was the site of a December 2015 riot, which led to a correctional officer being taken hostage by multiple inmates for several hours. Within the last few months, there was an uprising at the Kenora jail last September where a correctional officer was held hostage and in January there was a riot at the Algoma Treatment and Remand Centre in Sault Ste. Marie.
The situations at those two facilities have impeded the ability for inmates to be transferred from Thunder Bay.
“Before we’d be able to lean on Kenora and Algoma Treatment and Remand Centre to take some of that overflow,” Lundy said. “Right now we can’t because they’re struggling with their own issues.”
Lundy said overcrowding was a significant factor leading up to the 2015 riot, adding there have been recent incidents where inmates have been assaulted by prisoners on other ranges to keep more from being brought into their area.
“The tensions are rising. When you overcrowd a bunch of grown men into one area, tensions rise,” Lundy said. “When it’s overcrowded, it’s harder to do the full programs, give the inmates everything they need. This count is about 40 or 50 higher than it was in 2015.”
Lundy commended the work being done by local police forces, but said there’s nowhere to go for those who are arrested and waiting for their charges to work through the court process.
“The problem is with this infrastructure and this type of building and still being short staffed, it’s really hard to address the issue,” Lundy said.
“We’re a remand centre. We can’t put up a no vacancy sign on the door. The ministry is going to have to look at adding increased staff and getting going on this new jail that they keep promising.”
Ministry spokesperson Brent Ross said overcrowding is an issue in correctional facilities across the country and that the ministry has no control over the number of people in custody, or the length or circumstances that led to their stay.
"The ministry continually assesses capacity needs to ensure that beds are available where they are most needed in the province," Ross said. "The ministry is aware of the recent concerns that have been raised about overcrowding at the Thunder Bay jail. The ministry is working to relocate inmates to other correctional facilities in the northwestern region."
Ross said a request for proposal for the new jail is being developed.