Election time is jail time

Premier Dennis Fentie doesn’t believe in warehousing criminals. He has always defended his government’s decision to abandon…

Premier Dennis Fentie doesn’t believe in warehousing criminals.

He has always defended his government’s decision to abandon construction, midstream, of a new Whitehorse jail, claiming that it would do nothing to address recidivism.

“Correctional reform” was needed, he said.

Now, four years later he’s joining the other two parties in promising to build a new jail.

“We’ve already got a steering committee planning the jail,” said Fentie last week.

“It’ll be part of our A-base, considering we are already proceeding with the planning and the next-steps design and cost estimates and all that goes with it.

“The A-base is what we determine as non-discretionary. As we go through our budget cycles, a correctional centre will be part of that as non-discretionary expenditure.”

Too late, say his opponents.

The Yukon Party could have built the jail during its first mandate. but it lacked the political will, said former Justice minister John Edzerza.

“It could have been built,” said Edzerza, who quit the Yukon Party in August to run in McIntrye-Takhini for the New Democrats.

“(A new jail) is probably the most critical capital project at stake in the territory today.”

The existing jail “is like a dungeon,” he said.

The Liberals, who now estimate a new facility will cost $30 million, were on the right track in 2002, said Edzerza.

He expected the project to continue once the Yukon Party took office, he added.

“I honestly believed that, when we were elected, we would continue with that project.

“I never, ever thought for one minute that it would be stopped.”

The NDP estimate that almost $6 million was spent on the design of a $17-million facility.

About $1.5 million has gone into repairs of the decrepit building, the party said in a release.

Inmates have broken out of the facility, as recently as June 19, when David Wiebe escaped and went on the lam for 18 days before authorities caught him.

Before that, in November 2001, criminals broke into the jail, through the fence and stole cigarettes from its confectionary.

And in January 2004, eight prisoners broke through one of the interior walls during a small-scale riot.

“Some of the residents have a lot of troubles in terms of being surrounded by concrete walls with no access to outside,” said Liberal candidate Phil Treusch, who has worked at the jail as a guard and a caseworker since 1983.

“Some officers, I’m sure, feel as though they are being treated as if they were second-class employees, with the lack of office space and proper types of change rooms and locker facilities and staffroom facilities that have always been cramped,” said Treusch, who is running in Riverdale South.

“The professionals there that try and offer assessments for programming literally don’t have satisfactory physical space to deliver what they want to handle.

“First Nations, in general, would like to see more types of on-the-land healing.”

A 236-page corrections consultation report the government released in March 2006 details the needs of the Yukon correctional system.

It recommends building a new facility that has “space, staff and other resources required to provide short-term and long-term rehabilitation and healing programs.”

“We chose to first take the step of correctional reform,” said Fentie.

“What we’re doing, for the most part, is warehousing (criminals) in a correctional facility with a revolving door.

“That’s what we’re changing.”

Fentie also has two new-crime prevention initiatives — safer communities legislation and community court for repeat offenders – to cite as achievements of his government.

“These are examples of us implementing the recommendations of the report that came out of the reform process,” he said.

But there have been four reports on the jail, all recommending against renovations and pushing for a new facility, said Treusch.

“If you look at some of the consultation they did, by far, it involves community corrections and a lot of items exterior to the bricks and mortar jail.

“While a lot of that was excellent work — and definitely worth following up on — in terms of the basic question, I have to look at it as a stall tactic and not actually doing what was needed, and that’s constructing a new facility.”

All the talk in the world isn’t going to change that fact that some people who break the law must be jailed, said Edzerza, who was Justice minister for half of Fentie’s mandate, stepping in after his colleague Elaine Taylor was moved to Tourism.

“The justice consultation process wasn’t a bad process; it was valuable, but, all in all, the correctional facility could have been built, right from the beginning,” said Edzerza.