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A Globe and Mail investigation into the Thunder Bay District Jail found that last year, inmate-on-inmate assaults more than doubled from 2018.DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

Ontario plans to expand jails in Thunder Bay and Kenora, where facilities have long struggled with severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that prompted a Northern Ontario judge to recently declare such institutions have become the modern version of residential schools for Indigenous peoples.

The province said in an announcement on Tuesday that the expansion of the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre and Kenora Jail, part of a five-year, $500-million investment in correctional services across the province, will ease overcrowding and allow increased rehabilitation programs, with input from Indigenous communities.

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The expansions will serve as an interim solution until the new Thunder Bay Correctional Complex is built, Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones said. The new complex will replace the notoriously dangerous Thunder Bay District Jail, but that project is still several years away from reality. The government expects the expansions to relieve some of the overcrowding in the Kenora jail and Thunder Bay’s two facilities.

“Many of [the facilities] are historically very old and therefore don’t have the programming space that we would like to have to assist with treatment programs, and literacy programs, all of the things that are part of a successful reintegration,” Ms. Jones said in an interview.

A Globe and Mail investigation into the Thunder Bay District Jail, published last week, found that last year, inmate-on-inmate assaults more than doubled from 2018. Since 2002, at least nine inmates – eight of them Indigenous – have died by overdose and other means.

The Globe interviewed more than 40 people, including inmates and their families, First Nations leaders, lawyers, politicians and current and retired correctional staff.

Ontario’s Ombudsman Paul Dubé labelled the Thunder Bay jail the “most disturbing thing” he’s seen in his four-year tenure. Adam Capay, a young man from the Lac Seul First Nation, northwest of Thunder Bay, was released from the jail and a murder charge against him was thrown out because he had spent 4½ years in solitary confinement there.

The facility – where roughly three-quarters of the inmate population is First Nation – was the second-most crowded jail in the province last year, according to the Auditor-General of Ontario. Kenora Jail is the most crowded.

The expansion projects are expected to be completed by spring, 2022, Ms. Jones said. She added that there is no current timeline for building the new Thunder Bay Correctional Complex, but the request for proposals is expected to be released by next spring.

Ms. Jones said 70 per cent of inmates in the facilities are awaiting trial or sentencing, with the province looking “outside the box” for alternatives.

“Jails are not happy places to be, but they have a role in our society,” she said. “We need to ensure that people who shouldn’t be in jail … have access to other services.”

Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox said many of the inmates at the Kenora and Thunder Bay jails are from Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in northwestern Ontario. He said the justice system is not culturally aware or considerate of Indigenous communities.

In an Ontario court in Kenora last week, Justice David Gibson ruled that the mandatory minimum sentence for impaired driving charges against a group of women from the remote community of Pikangikum, north of Kenora, was unconstitutional, partly because it didn’t consider the unique needs of First Nations who don’t have the infrastructure to carry out weekend sentences.

Justice Gibson likened the conditions of correctional facilities such as the Kenora jail to residential schools.

Ontario’s planned projects for the $500-million investment include an Indigenous bail and remand program to decrease the use of pre-trial custody, and a restorative justice program to strengthen cultural identity and “reduce the likelihood of future involvement with the justice system.”

Chief Fox said his community has been working with the province to create a justice centre in Kenora as an alternative to the courts that would address the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system. Chief Fox said it could support not just the inmates, but the workers.

“You put four or five people in a cell that’s for two people, it’s going to cause stress, anxiety and anger amongst those inmates,” he told The Globe, adding that correctional officers have to deal with the fallout.

Sol Mamakwa, the NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong in Northern Ontario, said both expansions are much needed. Last May, his 27-year-old nephew Kevin Mamakwa, who struggled with mental-health issues since his teens and had recently started receiving treatment for substance use, appeared to have died by suicide in Thunder Bay District Jail.

Mr. Mamakwa said the previous Liberal government and now the Progressive Conservatives have promised to fix the situation at the jail and the justice issues plaguing Indigenous communities.

“I’m very skeptical when I hear these things,” Mr. Mamakwa said. “A new jail alone is not the solution.”

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