Budget won’t build much needed correctional centre

Seven years and three governments ago, Yukon politicians discussed a new jail. Many budgets have come and gone.

Seven years and three governments ago, Yukon politicians discussed a new jail.

Many budgets have come and gone.

Millions of dollars have been poured into consultations and planning by successive governments.

But the condemned building remains standing, much as it has for the last 40 years, save renovations to bring it inline with fire regulations.

The new Yukon Party budget earmarked another $1 million for “development of new correctional infrastructure.”

That figure is too slim to encompass pouring concrete or laying brick.

In the Legislature this week, Premier Dennis Fentie said a new jail is part of a larger plan for judicial reform.

“We’re going to invest money in the appropriate facilities that deliver the appropriate programming so that rehabilitation becomes a reality not just a term and we reduce our recidivism rate,” said Fentie.

“That’s the long-term plan here, in reforming the corrections system.”

When asked why money was not set aside to actually construct a new jail, Fentie said he didn’t want another “warehouse.”

“As this government said all along, we’re not building another warehouse, never,” he said.

“In fact as long as this government is in office we’re not investing money in warehouses.”

But this statement has many people wondering when consultations will stop and when construction will begin.

While the $1 million influx is welcome, a sizeable portion should be put towards designing and planning the building itself, said Mount Lorne MLA and NDP Justice critic Steve Cardiff.

“I’m not saying you should rush in and build a building,” said Cardiff.

“But what we’ve seen is more delaying tactics to not deal with the problem.”

Plenty of groundwork has been done by previous governments, he added.

“There’s a lot of work that’s gone ahead of the corrections consultation by both governments prior that were working towards the replacement of the facility.”

And there have been many plans over the years.

The NDP government of the late 1990s promised to build a new jail.

This pledge came after staff took to the streets to protest working conditions in the decrepit building.

The following Liberal government made a new jail part of its budget every year for four years.

The blueprint was in hand and dirt was being shoveled on site. The facility was to be built in the winter of 2002 to 2003.

“Yukoners haven’t forgotten the fact that, when we left office, the new jail was ready to go,” Liberal MLA and former premier Pat Duncan said in an interview this week.

“It wasn’t a design plucked off the shelf,” she said.

“That design had undergone significant consultation work, with the Council of Yukon First Nations elders’ council and with Yukoners; it was affordable and it met the needs.”

The jail was cancelled by Fentie.

The Yukon Party abandoned the Liberal jail and announced a consultation process on corrections.

It started in November 2004. It was run by the department of Justice and the Council of Yukon First Nations and involved community meetings, public talks and a summit that was held last fall.

“The first step was not building a new warehouse; the first step was getting a clear understanding of the many challenges in the corrections system in today’s Yukon,” said Fentie this week.

The consultation’s final report is due in a few days, according to Justice officials.

Building a new jail is flagged as “the number one priority,” said Fentie.

But there’s no money set aside to do it.

How much money has already been sunk into planning?

From 1999 to 2002, the Liberal government earmarked about $6.21 million.

Since Fentie came into power in 2002, the Yukon Party has spent $1.2 million on consultations and has now pledged another $1 million for implementing recommendations.

This brings the total planning budget over the past seven years to $8.41 million.

Renovations to Whitehorse Correctional Centre, in the intervening years, also cost taxpayers almost $1 million.

As early as 1995, however, a review by Barr Ryder Architects and Planners said it would be better to replace the jail than sink millions into repairing heating, plumbing, sewage and ventilation problems.

“Even if the program requirements could be limited to life-safety issues, the facility will not operate in an appropriate fashion, will not provide for the program functions necessary, will not have a lifespan exceeding five years without further substantive deterioration of the overall facility,” said the Barr-Ryder report.

“Options in the future, therefore, should not consider the continuation of this facility but must look towards its replacement as soon as practicable.”

Since then 11 years have passed.

In 2002, a fire marshal’s report found numerous flaws in seven different areas inside the jail.

At that time, the control room had an open-screen area near the ceiling “that would permit smoke and gasses to readily enter,” according to the report.

This is a serious hazard as workers in the control room are in charge of lockdown and fire alarms for the entire jail, and emergency fire equipment is also stored in the room.

As a result, government spent $912,000 bringing the building up to fire safety standards.

“There is the physical and mental health cost to Yukoners,” said Duncan.

“I’m referring to the health of those who are incarcerated, those who work at the facility and the mental health of the loved ones of both.”

Inmates and workers have dealt with unsafe conditions for too long, said Cardiff.

“What’s happened over the last three-and-a-half to four years is that we’ve got inmates and corrections workers in a facility that basically isn’t safe.”

Justice minister John Edzerza could be reached for comment.