On a wintry overcast day the entrance to the maximum-security Edmonton Institution, about 20 minutes north- east of the city limits, is a narrow, snow-covered ribbon lined with grey willow thickets. The worst of the worst take this road. One in three is serving a million-dollar sentence for violent crime—a sentence of more than 10 years that costs taxpayers $110,000 annually. And one in three is an Aboriginal Canadian.
To passing motorists on Highway 15, the low-slung red brick complex, when glimpsed through the morning ice fog, could pass for a college or school. But parallel perimeter fences topped with razor wire and anchored at the corners with armed sentry towers give away its true purpose. A pool of blood on the sidewalk of the inner courtyard reinforces the message to visitors. This is no school.
The “Max,” as it is known, is one of seven federal penitentiaries in Alberta. Nine other prisons, plus assorted prison camps and young offender facilities, are operated by the province for prisoners serving less than two years. Together they hold more than 4,000 men and women and about 170 juveniles.
Alberta has the distinction of having the sixth highest incarceration rate in Canada after the three territories and the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, according to Statistics Canada information for 2003/04. Though the province locks up 90 people for every 100,000 Alberta adults, this is still well under the national incarceration rate of 134. About 32,000 men and women are behind bars in Canada on any given day, at a cost to taxpayers of about $2.7-billion annually.
Many of the prisoners are poorly educated or illiterate. One in 10 men and one in five women in federal prisons suffer from a mental illness. About 80 per cent of federal inmates have less than a Grade 10 education and 65 per cent have less than Grade 8. The illiteracy rate among prisoners is about seven times that of mainstream society, according to Maureen Collins of the Edmonton John Howard Society. Although most federal prisons offer schooling, the programs, according to staff, are underfunded and the waiting lists to get into them are long.
Too many of the people in Canada’s jails are Aboriginal. Although they represent only 3 per cent of the national population, nationally Aboriginals account for 20 per cent of all admissions to federal and provincial prisons. Almost 40 per cent of sentenced Alberta prisoners are Aboriginal. It’s twice that proportion in Saskatchewan and 70 per cent in Manitoba. Currently, about 90 of the 240 prisoners at Edmonton Institution, or 37.5 per cent of the population, are Aboriginal. It’s enough to make a Cree elder weep. “They are throwing away their own identity,” laments Cecil Nepoose, who runs Aboriginal programs at the Max. “They don’t want to know who they are. They don’t want to know they have a rich culture, a rich, rich history to better their lives. That hurts me sometimes.”
How did it get this way? Although many Aboriginal offenders have a predilection for booze and drugs, they say that’s just a symptom. They blame the loss of culture and forced attendance at residential schools. The schools separated children from parents for long periods of time and prevented the passing on of parenting skills through subsequent generations. Without a proper upbringing in their homes or a sense of family, many Aboriginal children ended up in foster homes and reform schools.
“It’s daycare that’s raising young people these days and TVs that are babysitting them,” says Nepoose, who wears his waist- length hair in long black braids. “I had to chop wood and haul water with a pail and if I needed to go someplace I had to get on a horse. We were poor materially, but we were happy.”
Aboriginal offenders are vulnerable to gangs. They are looking for a sense of belonging and they get that from like-minded criminals who use prisons as recruiting centres. It is hard, in a dangerous and confined space, to turn down a forceful invitation. “They don’t go in there as gang members, but they come out as gang members,” says Rochelle Knibb of Native Counsel- ling Services of Alberta. “At least half of gang members join gangs while incarcerated.” Knibb laments that no programs are specifically aimed at helping gang members.
Barry Fry, serving 12 years for a home invasion and other offences, turned to a gang in prison and now it is his life. “My gang is my family. It’s a brotherhood,” he explains. “When you have nothing, your friends are your family. I joined up in 2000 because we had the same beliefs. We look out for each other. We have each other’s backs.”
With no other role models, children in Aboriginal communities look to gang members as heroes and follow them on the path to self-destruction. Fry has seen kids as young as nine high on crystal meth. He fears for their fate. He wonders what chance they have. “Go to any reserve and take down the names of the kids under 18 and I guarantee you in six years 90 per cent of those kids will have been in jail at least once. I’ve got little cousins. I don’t want them to come in here. I want them to get an education and stay out of trouble, but a lot of them don’t have that opportunity. They are on their own.”
In a general population unit at the Max, an emotional Clayton Berard speaks earnestly in staccato bursts, periodically pounding his chest for emphasis. A young, passionate Aboriginal man, his clothes—an orange-red football jersey and a Denver Broncos ball cap—are as colourful as his way of speaking. Two silver-capped lower teeth flash when he talks and his tattooed arms are in constant motion.
His voice quakes when he describes his childhood, bouncing from one foster home to the next. Feeling alone since age nine. Put up for adoption. Twice the featured child for adoption on a local television station. Somewhere along the way his feelings of worthlessness turned to rage. “Nobody wanted me,” he recalls. “What did I do wrong to deserve that? To this day, it’s still frustrating to me because I am still dealing with it. People say it’s in the past, but me, I still hold that pain like a chip on my shoulder.”
Mohawk Richard Squires says talking to elders in prison “helped me deal with my anger. It made me look at myself.”
Berard’s mother was only 17 when he was born. She gave him up. “I don’t think no kid should have to go through that. That really gets to me, man. What are we supposed to do? Teach ourselves on the street? Using needles, smoking crack?”
The young Buffalo Lake man was high on crack when, in December 2000, he and his cousin, armed with a gun and a knife, went on a tear. They forced their way into several homes and terrorized the occupants, including Edmonton radio gardening show host Stan Thomson and his wife. Just 25 years old, Berard is serving nine years in prison. His wife tried to drag him off the street at one point, he says, but the lure of the drugs was too strong. Now he has a three-year-old baby girl and the cycle of hopelessness seems to have spiralled into another generation.
Why isn’t the justice system working for Aboriginal people? Provincial and federal governments have struggled to come up with answers and solutions. They’ve embarked on a number of innovative programs ranging from hiring Aboriginal police officers, prison guards and court workers to establishing Aboriginal healing lodges, courts and prisons. Cultural training is given to Crown prosecutors; there are appointments of Aboriginal judges and justices of the peace, not to mention the creation of sentencing circles for Aboriginal adult and youth offenders. Addiction treatment programs aimed specificially at Aboriginals have also been established.
Native elders were introduced into federal penitentiaries in the mid-1980s to assist Aboriginal inmates in practising cultural ceremonies. Programs at the Max, which are open to natives and non-natives alike, include “smudging” with the smoke of smouldering sage or “sweet grass,” and spiritual experiences in the dark, sweltering, womblike confines of the sweat lodge. There are emotional, heart-purging healing circles as well as traditional pipe ceremonies and fasts.
Sadly, it’s in prison where many Aboriginal inmates discover their heritage. Correctional Services Canada officials hope this knowledge will instill in the inmates the self-worth they have been lacking and wrench them from the path of self-destruction. So far, the only evidence for that result is anecdotal.
In the cafeteria of the Stan Daniels Healing Centre, an Aboriginal treatment centre for released federal inmates in down- town Edmonton, Richard Squires says he never really knew or cared about his Aboriginal heritage until he got to prison. “I never knew nothing and I didn’t have an interest to learn,” admits the hulking, broad-shouldered, 51-year-old Mohawk. “I was seven years old when I was taken away from my family and I ended up in foster homes and group homes and I grew up angry. I couldn’t read or write until I was 23 years old. I learned in prison. The thing about being illiterate is it brings on all kinds of other illnesses with it. Everybody else is always right and you’re always wrong.”
Why there are so many Aboriginal people in prison is no mystery to Squires, who is on the back end of a life sentence for murder. “We come from a dysfunctional background. Society has put us on the back burner and we’ve isolated ourselves. It’s not so much that the government puts us in prisons. We put ourselves in prisons. For some Aboriginal people—I hate to say it—prison is home.”
After 30 violent years of prison life marked by riots and hostage-takings, Squires doesn’t have a lot of accolades for the corrections system. But he applauds the move to bring in Native elders. “For me personally, talking to elders has helped me deal with my anger. It has given me an understanding of myself. It got me in touch with who I am and who I want to be. We all put on masks. We want to be the tough guy. But I have learned. I discovered I did fit in. I do belong. It gave me a sense of purpose. It made me look at myself and make changes to be a better person.”
Although there’s no evidence in the form of lower incarceration or recidivism rates to back it up, Aboriginal programs seem to have a genuine positive impact on hard-core cons like Squires, says Rochelle Knibb. “I have seen people come here who have been very, very resistant to correctional programs. When they can practise their spirituality they are more likely to stay in the programs and see them through,” she says. “I think healing centres like ours give Aboriginal offenders some feeling that they can succeed, that they are more than just a number.”
Back at the Max, Berard turns to Nepoose for spiritual help. “He’s probably the best thing that ever happened to this place. He opened my eyes. He showed me that I have to get control of myself and learn the tools I need to help me get out and stay out. I keep my strength by praying every day.”
Nepoose has seen hardened killers brought to tears inside the sanctity of the sharing circle. Like the confessional in a Roman Catholic church, it’s a place where cons can admit their failings, their sins and their fears and not have to worry about it getting back to fellow inmates and guards.
At a recent circle, a street-hardened gang member in prison for violent offences wept over his crimes. “He was crying for what he had done,” says Nepoose. “It was so painful. He has a long way to go in terms of healing before he can get his foot in the door, but he made a sacrifice by exposing himself. There’s a lot of remorse that comes out of those sharing circles. They are dealing with a lot of anger and a lot of hurt.”
Nepoose tells stories and teaches inmates how to prepare the sweat lodge, instructing them in the traditional names for the rocks and the wood and the order of things. They sing the traditional songs and they pray. “It’s teaching them a way of life, a way of looking, a way of living, a way of being,” he explains. “It’s a comfort zone for them when they come into a ceremony, a sweat lodge especially. They can relate to God, they talk to the spirit world. Most of their prayers are answered in some way, some form. Some take time, some responses are almost instant.”
A tough childhood can be a cop-out for some people who don’t do well, Cardinal says, “but we all choose our path.”
Alberta Corrections supervisor Cecil Cardinal, 44, has seen the issue from both sides. A Cree who grew up poor in northern Alberta on the Sucker Creek Reserve, he recalls travelling with his family to Peace River to visit his own father in a provincial prison. “I had to talk to him on a phone through the glass, but at Christmas I remember we had dinner with the offenders in the gym.” Four of Cardinal’s nine brothers and sisters have also served time in prisons. The veteran jail guard says a tough childhood “can be a cop-out for some First Nations people who don’t do very well, but we all choose our path.” Cardinal was inspired by his late uncle, Harold Cardinal, one of the province’s most prominent Indian leaders. “Everyone has obstacles and it is a matter of overcoming them and progressing from there,” he observes.
Kevin Meetoos overcame a significant hurdle when he turned a six-year prison sentence into something positive. It was very sobering to see up close the fate of so many men he had known in prison.
“Some of them are now serving life sentences, some of them have death sentences from HIV and the majority have passed away on the street,” says Meetoos.
When his sentence ended in 1990, he returned to prison as a Correctional Services Canada employee to help his former prison mates. The dry-witted 40-year-old credits an Aboriginal elder he met at Drumheller Institution for putting him on the right path, but he says the drive to change had to come from within. Now Kevin Meetoos works in the Max with Cecil Nepoose helping Aboriginal inmates find the tools they need to change their ways.
The Remand Centre
Fugitive murder suspect Miroslav Woronkiewicz was so determined to avoid being locked up in an Alberta remand centre that he tried to negotiate a deal with Calgary police to go straight to a maximum-security federal prison. He vowed to pull an armed robbery before surrendering so he could plead guilty to it and go directly to a penitentiary to await his murder trial. “I don’t want to do no remand time, man,” he told a Calgary homicide detective in a taped cellphone call. “That’s torture, man. Like, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy to do time there, okay? I can’t handle it psychologically. I will kill myself in there, man.”
Woronkiewicz feared he would be stuck in deplorable conditions in a crowded remand centre for up to three years waiting for a trial in today’s bogged-down justice system. He had previously spent seven months in the Edmonton Remand Centre where prisoners are sometimes stacked three to a cell in a space designed to hold two. Woronkiewicz had also done four months at the overcrowded Calgary Remand Centre. He was adamant he wasn’t going back.
“Try sitting in a cell 23 hours every day,” he told the detective. “I’d rather do 20 years in the pen than do five months in the remand centre.” He complained of having to wear a coarse, one-piece, tear-proof gown known in prison jargon as a “baby doll” and being fed only skimpy bag lunches that left him so famished he became enraged and had to be restrained.
The burly, head-shaven 23-year-old called the detective nine times over the course of several days trying to arrange his surrender, but he didn’t really trust the police to live up to their end, especially after his lawyer advised him that he had never heard of such an arrangement. “If you guys lie to me I swear to God I will kill somebody in jail, man. I will take somebody’s life and I’ll kill myself too. I don’t care, man. Just tell me honestly if you can’t do it and I still might turn myself in. It just might take a few days because I am planning to do a couple of robberies so I can get some pen time. Like, if that is what it takes, I’ll do it.”
Woronkiewicz never did work out a deal. After a couple of aborted surrenders, Calgary police eventually caught up with him and arrested him for the January 2004 stabbing death of 23-year-old Tibor Dvorak. Woronkiewicz immediately told police he wanted to plead guilty to robbing a video store so he could get sentenced to a federal prison. But it didn’t work out that way. His robbery trial was delayed when the Crown prosecutor fell ill, and Woronkiewicz’s bizarre scheme to avoid being remanded in a provincial facility fell apart. Much to his dismay he ended up serving substantial time in the Calgary Remand Centre before he was shipped to a Manitoba prison to begin serving a three-year sentence for robbery.
His lawyer, Allan Fay, says many of his clients complain about conditions at the Calgary Remand Centre, but he was shocked Woronkiewicz would go to such extremes to try to avoid the overcrowding, poor food and 23-hour-a-day lockup. “The very concept that people would commit crimes just to stay out of the remand centre is mind-boggling,” Fay says.
Another of his clients has spent five months in the Calgary Remand Centre, locked in a cell 23 hours of the day and often sleeping on the floor because there aren’t enough bunks. “They have to build bigger jails or stop sending people there, one or the other,” Fay states. “In the present political climate I don’t see much sign that they are going to stop sending people there, so the provincial government must treat them in a humane fashion. At the moment, it does not appear that they are.”
Built in 1993 to hold 361 prisoners, the Calgary Remand Centre often holds more than 500 men and women. Prisoners, lawyers and guards say conditions in the Edmonton Remand Centre are even worse. Constructed in 1979 to hold 332, the Edmonton facility is bulging at the seams with 700-plus inmates.
The Solicitor General boasts that Alberta has the second-lowest cost per prisoner of any jurisdiction in Canada. At $101.51 per prisoner per day, the cost of running Alberta jails is second only to Nova Scotia and far cheaper than the federal prisons at $234 per inmate per day. But conditions are so bad at both of Alberta’s major remand centres that many remanded prisoners regularly earn reductions in their sentences of two or three days for every day served in remand. The practice has become so commonplace that the Alberta Court of Appeal recently chastised judges for awarding credits to remand centre prisoners without requiring proof of the vile conditions they claim to have endured.
Some remand prisoners have successfully argued that their confinement violated their human rights, and have had their sentences reduced. Nicholas Chan had a seven-year conviction for heroin trafficking reduced to just under a year last August after a court ruled his rights were violated when he was denied Buddhist reading materials and vegetarian meals in the Calgary Remand Centre. He spent 26 months in remand.
Twenty-seven former Edmonton Remand Centre inmates have launched a massive lawsuit against the province for treatment they claim was inhumane and degrading. In a statement of claim filed in Edmonton Court of Queen’s Bench they contend “the accommodation is psychologically oppressive and harmful to physical health.” The inmates, who have since been released when charges were stayed, say they had to sleep on filthy, bloodstained, insect-infested mattresses in freezing, poorly ventilated cells. One Aboriginal inmate swore out an affidavit in the suit describing conditions in the medical unit. “The walls were dirty and disgusting,” said Bernard Bearhead, who spent time in the centre in 2001. “They looked like there was some kind of goo on them [caused by] bodily fluids.”
Another inmate signed an affidavit describing his difficulty getting clean clothes or clean towels at the remand centre. “There was a laundry parade daily and on many occasions inmates would line up for clean clothes but not get any.” He said larger inmates wore their coveralls until they were filthy and torn because they knew if they turned them in, they wouldn’t find another pair to fit them. He complained that the underwear he received to wear was stained with feces.
Despite the complaints and court challenges, inmates say conditions have worsened rather than improved at the Edmonton Remand Centre. One inmate who spent time in the centre in 1992 and again in 2000, said in an affidavit that prisoners are now locked up more, receive fewer privileges, are treated worse by guards and medical staff and have to contend with more violence. He said the unit he was on in 2000 had 20 cases of lice.
Gerry Naud, another inmate who spent nine months in the Edmonton Remand Centre, complained constantly about conditions, to little avail. “I have never seen anything like it in my life,” he says. “It’s outright inhumane.” Naud observes that when three inmates are put in one cell, the third man has to sleep on a mattress on the floor alongside the toilet. There is no fresh air and dust and dirt blows out of the air vents. “When I was in there in the winter, you could scrape the frost off the walls.”
But he saves most of his contempt for the quality and quantity of the food. “Meals are being served with mould on them, undercooked meals, cold meals, food that is aging.” He filed an official complaint about mould in his food, but is not aware of any changes being made to address the problem.
Edmonton Remand Centre inmate Jason Dix, whose murder charges were eventually dropped, lost 60 pounds during his 22- month stay, on a diet of meatless chili with rice, tuna casserole and processed meat and potatoes. “You get no fresh fruit or vegetables,” according to Naud. One inmate signed an affidavit that he ate so many “poor quality” mashed potatoes in the remand centre he now gets uncomfortable at the sight of them. Most inmates supplement their diet with junk food from the prison canteen, which opens once a week for a couple of hours to sell candy, chocolate and potato chips. “If you don’t have money when you go into that place, you starve,” says Naud.
He says there’s nothing to do when you are locked in your cell for 20 or more hours a day, with no courses available to study or improve yourself, no training or counselling. Inmates say there is an inadequate stock of newspapers, magazines and books for the prisoners. Guards get first dibs on the papers.
Health care is also a major source of complaint. When a 24- year-old female inmate died from dehydration at the Edmonton Remand Centre in 2003, a doctor testified at her fatality inquiry that inmates have been getting sicker as the overcrowding has grown worse. Dr. Harry Jaglalsingh said he quit his post after the inquiry into the death of Jody Umpherville because he felt he didn’t have the authority to make the necessary changes to prevent another inmate from dying the same way. Umpherville, a mother of five, never saw a doctor during the two days between her admission into the remand centre and her death. Although she was vomiting excessively and her vital signs deteriorated, the nurse in the medical unit made a judgment call not to summon a doctor or send her to a hospital.
Fatality inquiry judge M.G. Stevens-Guille noted in his report that while Umpherville was under observation in the medical unit “the quality of that observation was questionable.” He made 10 recommendations to prevent similar deaths, but his call for a doctor to see all medical unit patients within 12 hours of admission and his urging that the jail hire experienced registered nurses trained in diagnosis were both rejected. The solicitor general’s department also didn’t see an immediate need to give the medical officer the authority to oversee all medical care in the facility. Jaglalsingh testified at the inquiry that his directives for the care of inmates were being changed by clerical staff.
Now in private practice, the frustrated doctor is not optimistic that the provincial government will learn anything from Umpherville’s death. “I doubt the place will change,” he says. “I have been through a lot of recommendations, and in Alberta nothing will happen to you if you refuse to carry out a judge’s recommendations.” Umpherville should have been sent to a hospital and there’s nothing to convince Jaglalsingh that the next dying inmate will be. “I left because I didn’t want to be a part of a reoccurrence of that fatality.”
Inmates complain that it is difficult to get attention for routine medical problems or to receive prescribed medication on time. According to Shaughn Mulholland, 35, who suffers from a brain injury sustained in a car accident, it was a battle to get his prescribed medication during the four months he spent in the Edmonton Remand Centre awaiting an assault trial last winter. His mother, Stacie Welch, called everybody, from the remand centre nurses and the centre’s director to the deputy prime minister to beg them to ensure her son got his mild anti- depressant so he could function. When that didn’t work, she even asked a judge for a court order.
“Granted, this isn’t the Hotel Ritz and these guys are overworked and the jail is overcrowded, but even when they were given direction from the judge they just laughed at us,” Welch recalls. She kept a detailed log of all the times staff said they forgot or couldn’t find him. “It was a constant problem all the time he was there,” she said. “It’s not as if he went out for a walk and they missed him.”
At the remand centre the treatment for her son’s injury consisted of being locked in a room for 24 hours a day. “I was on the medical unit for a week and all they did was put me in a room and tell me to shut up and take my pills,” Mulholland says. “I needed physiotherapy, but all they did was make me lie down. They just lock you in a closet and forget about you. I was worse when I got out.”
Mulholland said he pleaded guilty to the assault so he could seek medical attention for a neck injury he suffered during his arrest. “I just wanted to get out so I could see a doctor,” he said. He was sentenced to the time he had already served.
Ban coffee, colour TVs and candy? I can’t think of a more stupid way to treat prisoners,” says Tom Engel.
Safety is also a growing concern for inmates and guards. With inmates packed practically on top of each other, the place is a powder keg, says Naud. “If you don’t know how to fight and you are not a strong individual, you will get picked on, you will get pounded on and you will get taken for what you have,” he says. “There’s a lot of turmoil and tension. There’s constant fighting over the phone, the TV, food and clothing.”
There are also sexual attacks. A sex offender raped two Edmonton Remand Centre inmates who had the misfortune of having to share his cell on separate occasions. A year after the first rape, guards made the mistake of double-bunking the sex offender with a second inmate, whom he also raped. In 2005 he pleaded guilty to both attacks. His four-and-a-half-year sentence was then reduced to one year because he had spent a year at the remand centre awaiting trial.
Edmonton lawyer Tom Engel, who has been leading a legal campaign to improve conditions in remand centres, says the overcrowding is part of a nationwide trend that hit between 1986 and 1992, when admissions to remand centres nearly doubled from 68,000 to 110,000. “It’s just a huge explosion of people being held without bail,” says Engel. The explosion has continued. In 2003/04, the number of people in remand centres jumped 72 per cent over a decade earlier. Engel blames the hike on the fact that more people are being denied bail and on the growing length of time to finish cases because of a shortage of judges, prosecutors, courtrooms and infrastructure.
Concern about the problem was expressed at a federal/ provincial meeting of justice ministers and solicitors general in Whitehorse last winter. The Ontario Association of Corrections and Criminology has called for major bail reforms, including electronic monitoring, intensive supervision in the community and the use of bail residences instead of remand centres.
Engel says the appalling conditions in Alberta’s remand centres have prevailed because the government doesn’t see any political currency in addressing the situation. He says the government has “a mean-spirited attitude” toward inmates and has no desire to improve conditions until it is forced to do so. “This government has demonstrated it will not effect changes because it is the right thing to do. It will only effect change when ordered to by a higher authority.” Engel cites as an example the since-rescinded decision by former Solicitor General Steve West to remove colour TVs from jails and replace them with small black-and-white sets. He also points to current Solicitor General Harvey Cenaiko’s plan, reversed almost immediately by Premier Ralph Klein, to ban coffee and sweets from jails. Engel says that if Albertans want prisoners to be reintegrated into society as productive, law-abiding citizens, they must not treat them unjustly. “I can’t think of a more stupid way to treat prisoners. How can you expect them to respect authority?”
Guards, who are prohibited from speaking on the record, say the smoking ban in provincial jails now has made their job even more dangerous because inmates are smoking scrapings off nicotine patches rolled up in dried orange peels. They light the material by short-circuiting electrical outlets. “It’s only a matter of time until we have a big fire,” says one guard. The volatility generated by the overcrowding has added an unacceptable level of danger and stress to an already hos- tile environment. “Sick time among guards is unbelievable,” says one 20-year veteran. “The violence is getting even more vicious.” With the proliferation of gangs in remand centres, the movement of every inmate through the facility must be checked to ensure incompatible gang members are kept apart.
Alberta Ombudsman Gord Button, a former Mountie, says about 25 per cent of the complaints he fields come from prisoners and most are from remand centres. However, he believes that ratio of prisoner complaints is similar to other parts of Canada. “The number of complaints that are supported or founded isn’t any higher than any other jurisdiction,” he said. “Our situation in Alberta is probably no worse or no better than other provinces or other countries.”
Dan MacLennan, a former provincial jail guard who now heads the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, says the situation isn’t likely to improve soon, since provincial politicians aren’t motivated to spend money building jails when the public is clamouring for more schools and hospitals. Infrastructure Minister Lyle Oberg observes that Alberta could construct 25 schools for the cost of a new remand centre. One does have to be built he says. “The question is when, and the [second] question is where can we find the money to do it?”
Remand centres are self-fulfilling prophecies. “If we had 2,000 beds, we’d have 2,000 inmates,” says one lawyer
Solicitor General Cenaikosays replacing Edmonton’s Remand Centre and building a new wing onto the Calgary Remand Centre are top priorities. Preliminary plans have been drawn up for construction of a 1,500-inmate facility in Edmonton, but Cenaiko has to get his cabinet colleagues to approve the $250- million capital plan. Even if he gets approval this spring, it will be at least five years before construction is completed. In the meantime Cenaiko is worried overcrowding is putting corrections officers and inmates at risk. The former Calgary police officer has hired additional guards at a cost of $3.5-million to help them deal with the burgeoning jail populations. He has also ordered stab-resistant vests for 1,100 guards at a cost of $610,000. Until a new remand centre is built in Edmonton, his department is transferring some prisoners to Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre to alleviate some of the pressure.
Building and expanding remand centres may temporarily relieve overcrowding, but long-term solutions must be found. Edmonton criminal trial lawyer Peter Royal says the city didn’t even have a remand centre when he started practising law in 1976. He recalls there were only 40 prisoners awaiting trial in custody and they were held at the Fort Saskatchewan jail, just northeast of Edmonton. “They were dangerous and really did need to be locked up, but the vast majority of people facing criminal charges were all released pending their trials.” How- ever, when the Edmonton Remand Centre opened, it filled up quickly. “Remand centres are self-fulfilling prophecies,” says Royal. “If we had 2,000 beds, we’d have 2,000 remand inmates.”
On any given day, the province has about 1,200 people awaiting trial in the two major centres as well as in Red Deer, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. That accounts for more than half of the total of 2,335 prisoners in provincial custody. Royal says remand centres were never designed to hold people for years on end. While the average stay is still only 13 days, Royal says some of his clients facing trial on serious charges of murder or attempted murder have been housed there for as long as three years as lawyers prepare for preliminary hearings and trials in the backlogged court system.
Maureen Collins, executive director of the Edmonton John Howard Society, says that while it is necessary to replace the remand centre, the province must find a solution that doesn’t involve incarcerating more people before trial. If they aren’t at risk to flee, they shouldn’t be in custody, she says. Valerie Meaney, executive director of the Edmonton Elizabeth Fry Society, also believes a new building is not a panacea. “While a new remand centre will ease the overcrowding, will it address other remand issues? Does it just mean more space for everybody or does it mean better food and greater access to programs, lawyers, community support and families?”
Guards fear it will take a disaster—a fire or riot or hostage- taking—to move the politicians to act. “I just know something bad is going to happen,” says one veteran corrections officer. “I just hope a fellow guard doesn’t get hurt.”
Darcy Henton is an award-winning journalist who has masqueraded as both a guard and an inmate for stories.