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Prisoners Keep Dying in Winnipeg’s Jails

Five people have died in less than seven months.

by James Wilt
Nov 11 2016, 3:56pm

Photo via Pixabay

The death penalty is illegal in Canada. But that doesn't mean prisoners aren't dying in Manitoba.

Since March, five people have died in custody at the Winnipeg Remand Centre, including two in October. Four of the five were Indigenous men. That includes Errol Greene, a 26-year-old man who was killed on May 1 after being denied epilepsy medication, and handcuffed and shackled on his stomach after the first of two successive seizures.

Most were in remand for breaching court orders while awaiting trial, including drinking alcohol while on probation.

"The fact we've had five people die in the Winnipeg Remand Centre, right in the middle of downtown Winnipeg and all in the span of seven months, is really shocking," Corey Shefman, associate with Boudreau Law and former president of the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties, told VICE. "It is as much of a crisis as there can be."

Manitoba has by far the highest per-capita incarceration rate of all provinces, almost three times the national average. Seventy per cent of Manitoba's inmates are Indigenous.

Another 70 percent are on remand—meaning they're being detained while awaiting trial—thanks to a punitive bail breaches policy and Integrated Warrant Apprehension unit introduced by the Manitoba NDP as part of its draconian "tough on crime" agenda.

This has resulted in a massive overcrowding of the province's carceral institutions; the Remand Centre is currently 20 percent over capacity.

"We're looking at not only systemic racism, but we're also looking at a systemic devaluation of the charter right to not be deprived of your liberty without being found guilty of a crime," Shefman said. "This is a really serious situation."

Little is known about the deaths of Robert McAdam on September 4, or Lance Harper on October 25. Hollie Hall died on March 17 from a "flu-like illness" and received medical attention too late.

A family member of Russell Spence, who died on October 12, suggested at a recent rally that he was beaten to death by guards in the showers; the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba stated in a press release that "a struggle ensued and the affected person suffered a medical emergency and became unresponsive."

Two other inmates have died in Manitoba's jails during 2016: one at the Headingley Correctional Centre, and the other at the Dauphin Correctional Centre. Shefman pointed out that this brings the provincial average to one death in custody per month.

A spokesperson from Manitoba Justice says that an internal review was launched for each fatal incident and reported to the Chief Medical Examiner, as required by law.

However, Stéphane Doucet—who has been helping organize regular rallies and vigils outside the remand—told VICE that Greene's wife (Rochelle Pranteau, now a single mother of four) and former cellmate (Stephen King) have never been contacted by the remand centre.

"I don't think there's an investigation going on," said Doucet, who recently had his institutional access revoked by the remand centre.

In a statement following Greene's death, the president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU)—which represents provincial correctional officers—said "I think it's important for everyone to withhold judgement on what happened until all the facts are known."

Manitoba Justice told VICE that it is "not able to accommodate an interview" with Justice Minister Heather Stefanson. On October 31, Stefanson ordered an internal corrections review that will consider the "systemic factors" of the deaths in order "to determine if there are common themes to these tragic events that need to be addressed."

Yet Manitoba Justice's Chief Medical Examiner hasn't called an inquest into any of the five deaths at the remand centre. Video footage of the events hasn't been released. Plus, the internal corrections review won't be public—the minister will receive findings—and Shefman noted that it will likely be performed to suit the government's political interests.

The only ideas that have been offered by the MGEU include better training for guards and the need to address "chronic overcrowding" by expanding prisons (instead, as Doucet points out, of granting bail to more people).

"Two months ago there were no fake solutions because nobody was acknowledging the problem," Doucet said. "Now there's a problem but it's looked at through this fucked up and stupid lens."

Shefman said the province has been playing "semantic games with the inquest system," as inmates have died in the hospital instead of in the remand centre (even though the prisoners were still in provincial custody).

He suggests a government-ordered public inquiry would be preferable to individual inquests and would guarantee independence and increased accessibility for families of the deceased, noting that the "cost of access to the justice system is outrageously high" due to deep underfunding of legal aid and very low eligibility thresholds.

But Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, voiced skepticism about a potential inquiry, noting that victims often end up getting blamed and pathologized in the process.

"Rarely are deaths in custody found to be the fault of corrections workers," she told VICE.

"They're often explained away in a way that constructs them as just a logical outcome of an already damaged or drunk person who ended up in remand because of their own unfortunate circumstances. I don't know whether to have confidence in that process. I would be cynical about it."

READ MORE: What It's Really Like to Spend Time in a Canadian Prison

Shefman also acknowledged that recommendations produced by the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba—launched in 1988 following the deaths of Helen Betty Osborne and J.J. Harper—have been "neglected and ignored and cherry picked" by successive governments.

That's why Dobchuk-Land suggested that "we need to really organize the public around this issue," following the lead of many Indigenous groups and communities; Justice for Errol Greene, a loose group that includes family and activists which has organized rallies outside the Remand Centre (including a 24-hour vigil in August).

Dobchuk-Land said real change will only come with the rejection of the idea that the expansion of the carceral state under the NDP was somehow benevolent, including "community policing" and prison-based initiatives and expansions.

Instead, she explained that police and prison powers must be "decentred" by strengthening community organizations, social services and housing in order to increase the ability for people to function and survive outside of prisons.

"We don't have this carceral buildup because we have a particularly criminal or dysfunctional population," she said. "It's because of political decision making. And that political decision making can be reversed. It's not actually as complicated as people make it sound."

It will be a tough fight.

Manitoba has the highest number of police officers on a per-capita basis of all the provinces. Winnipeg's police department is becoming increasingly militarized, with the service buying a $343,000 armoured vehicle with eight gun ports and a battering ram in 2015 (it was first used in September to secure a BB gun).

The city's policing budget has increased from 17 percent to 26.5 percent of total expenditures between 2000 and 2016. Despite that, the Winnipeg Police Association has been actively campaigning against the city's plan to rein in police spending, with a door knocking campaign drawing out 100 off-duty cops.

And there's an ongoing push for prison expansion, starting with the Dauphin Correctional Centre (which the Manitoba NDP inexplicably continues to support). The new Progressive Conservative government also just privatized phones in provincial jails, meaning it now costs $12/hour for families and friends to talk to prisoners; the system, authorized by the NDP, has also resulted in problems with lawyers talking to inmates.

But resistance grows in tandem.

An inquest into the death of Craig McDougall, a 26-year-old Indigenous man who was shot and killed by Winnipeg police in 2008, started on November 7; Shefman, who is representing McDougall explained that it's the first inquest in Manitoba that will consider the role of systemic racism in the death (McDougall's uncle was J.J. Harper, one of the two people whose death triggered the 1988 public inquiry).

Meanwhile, activists are organizing rideshares for families to visit incarcerated relatives and petitioning for the reversal of the new phone policy via calls to Stefanson's office. The Justice for Errol Greene group is finalizing a list of demands for the Remand Centre, Manitoba Justice, MGEU and chief medical examiner, to be released in the coming weeks.

"If the remand kills five people and you don't know who's responsible and you don't even know if anyone has had a slap on the wrist, let alone lost their job, how are you supposed to trust this shit?" Doucet concluded. "If you don't acknowledge what's literally killing people, you're not going to have people stop dying."

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