News that an inmate broke out of the Brandon Correctional Centre would be worrisome enough all on its own.
What’s really alarming is that guards apparently had no idea that the man was missing in the first place. Only five hours later did the jail learn of the escape, when the escapee was arrested on an unrelated matter in Saskatchewan and Oxbow RCMP made a call here to Brandon.
Can it get any worse than that? As a matter of fact it can.
Red-faced jail officials also learned, thanks to Saskatchewan Mounties, that the missing man had also swiped a set of keys from the jail, and stole an official Manitoba Government pickup truck from the jail’s own parking lot to make his getaway.
And how did this Houdini get away?
Apparently, he just walked out through a gym door that had been propped open for ventilation.
He then wriggled through a hole in the fence and climbed up and over the building itself.
Police say the man received significant injuries to his feet and back as a result of the escape, and had to be taken to hospital in Saskatchewan. But his injuries weren’t enough to stop him making a cross-provincial getaway in a stolen government truck.
Now, the Brandon Correctional Centre is no Alcatraz, and it needn’t be. It’s a medium-security facility for criminals who are serving a sentence of less than two years. Many of the inmates are in for relatively minor offences.
Indeed, a reading of the Brandon Police Service’s daily blotter sees the same crimes repeated over and over: Some drinking, some fighting, some drugs, some petty thefts — and a lot of court-order breaches.
Those small crimes add up. The Brandon Correctional Centre is regularly over its official capacity.
With the addition in 2011 of 84 new dorm-style beds, the jail’s ideal capacity became 248. It’s now apparently 252. Earlier this summer, the population was reported at 317. Today, there are 296 in custody there. The lack of beds appears to be what forced jail officials to set up cots in the gym —where, crowded by heat and poorly ventilated, a door had to be left ajar.
This isn’t the first time we’ve sounded the alarm over jail overcrowding —nor over Brandon Correctional Centre’s very slow response time.
In late 2011, two inmates managed to get out of the "bullpen" area of the jail yard, which is a chain-link enclosure, including the roof.
After getting out of that, the duo also managed to scale two 12-foot fences topped with razor wire before getting free.
It’s not clear when guards learned of that escape, but despite surveillance cameras, no one noticed two people climbing up and over three fences during whatever amount of time it took. While one of the escapees was captured in Brandon a few hours later, jail officials then couldn’t manage to release the other escapee’s name and photo for 10 hours.
He wasn’t caught until late the next day —in Winnipeg.
Escapes aren’t the only issues at the overcrowded Brandon Correctional Centre. Late last year, there were at least three beatings. One left the two victims unconscious while their attacker stomped on their heads. The third victim was beaten by a group, left with chipped teeth and a swollen face.
This summer, another group of inmates gathered around and beat a fellow prisoner, sending him to hospital. It took authorities a week to reveal that he was actually in a coma.
It has been worse: In 2009, there was a full-fledged riot at the jail, where gang members ripped metal doors from their hinges, broke through cinderblock walls to get reinforcements from other subunits, and eventually broke a hole in an external wall.
To be sure, jail officials face plenty of difficulties. They have to keep rival gangs segregated from each other. And there is a big difference between a person serving a short sentence on weekends for something like shoplifting and a person serving two years less a day for aggravated assault. They, too, should be kept somewhat apart.
But jail officials don’t do themselves any favours when they aren’t forthright about the issues in their institution. Reporting an escape promptly, for example, can help turn the public into eyes and ears.
Detecting an escape promptly should also be a priority, though that might be hard to do when there are always more prisoners than the maximum.
About that maximum.
People whose only experience with jail is through a television or movie screen might be expecting cells to have one or two bunks in them. But the cheap "dorm-room"-style accommodations built to expand the jail three years ago look more like a student hostel than a dorm.
Rows of metal bunk beds line large rooms in these expansions. And as anyone who has spent a gap year overseas knows, too many people sleeping in the same space can lead to conflict, even among people who are otherwise friends.
Now imagine nightly conflict among a group of people thrown together by the state, and forbidden from leaving to take a cool-down walk.
Many of our readers won’t have too much sympathy for people who wind up in jail. After all, it’s their own fault, right?
But if common decency isn’t enough to change your mind, how about common sense? Overcrowded jails cause problems for staff and the community. They can also be a legal liability, as the state of California is finding out. Earlier this year, courts imposed a maximum prison population, saying that the crowded conditions are unconstitutional and cause inmates to needlessly suffer.
The province, which runs the Brandon Correctional Centre, has invested in jail capacity in recent years, just as it has in front-line police.
But obviously the problem is not going away.
We suggest that some of the provincial investment should go toward the court system. Too many of the people in our so-called "revolving door" justice system find themselves in and out of custody because they are released on onerous conditions while waiting a very long time for trial.
More resources are needed for Crown attorneys and for legal aid so that court cases can be dealt with swiftly.
Speeding up the sluggishness in our system would allow judges to hear cases as they come before them, rather than remanding people over and over again while they try to find lawyers or even a date in a courtroom.
The fact of the matter is that crime rates are at decades-long lows. It should be easier — not harder — for society to deal with those who don’t follow the rules.
Maybe the embarrassment of this unnoticed escape will prompt some action.