Quebec pledges to solve overcrowded jail problem
Police fear cramped quarters could cause riot among prisoners
The Quebec government has promised to look for ways to resolve an overcrowding problem that police say could eventually cause a riot at Kuujjuaq’s jail.
Local police and Kativik regional government politicians met with officials from the corrections branch of the provincial ministry of public security last week to discuss how to handle the growing number of prisoners crammed into Kuujjuaq’s jail.
Police report that the jail population has repeatedly ballooned to more than twice its capacity when court is in session. In Nunavik, most accused persons are sent south to Amos, or St. Jerôme, near Montreal, until they can schedule court appearances in Kuujjuaq or the community where the incident occurred.
Earlier this month, police said guards watched over 32 prisoners in Kuujjuaq, while waiting for court appearances.
The jailhouse is only meant to hold 15 people. Police say overcrowding is also happening in other holding cells in Kuujjuaraapik and Salluit.
Lt. George Okpik, spokesperson for the Kativik Regional Police Force, said the current situation risks causing a riot.
“There are dangers in having so many people,” Okpik said. “Hopefully we could get a bigger facility for these inmates. After all, they’re human. They have problems just like everybody else.
“Hopefully, it won’t come to the point where someone gets hurt.”
Okpik said the jailhouse conditions have increased public criticism of police, who people blame for prisoner mistreatment, even though police have no control over the size of the jail.
After visiting the jailhouse in Kuujjuaq earlier this month, a Quebec government official said they will work to ease pressure on prisoners, court staff, and jailhouse guards.
Daniel Guénard, regional director of corrections facilities for Nunavik, admitted the jailhouse was badly overpopulated at certain times of year.
However, Guénard noted the overcrowding only happens when the prisoners are brought up for court dates. He said the Kuujjuaq jail will be over capacity three weeks out of every 14 each year.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened,” Guénard said, referring to the spill-over earlier this month. “There’s overcrowding, yes. Are we trying to fix the situation.
“But we need to do an analysis of the situation? Yes.”
Guénard said that means he will have to discuss the problem with the Quebec’s department of justice, before committing to any promises of expanding the current facilities, or changing how prisoners are transported.
A national prisoners’ rights group says that overcrowding likely happens more often in regions like Nunavik, because the justice system ships prisoners back and forth.
Graham Stewart, director general of the John Howard Society of Canada, said Nunavik would be better served if the provincial government set up more support programs in the communities that would allow people accused of less serious crimes to stay up North, and out of jail, while they wait for their court dates.
“It’s a lot cheaper to have support mechanisms at home in the community than putting them in a jail cell,” he said from his office in Kingston.
Stewart said overcrowding is also about more than dollars and cents.
In his words, the jailhouse situation in Kuujjuaq violates United Nations conventions on prisoner treatment.
“It’s unhealthy, it’s dangerous,” Stewart said. “Unhealthy diseases can spread easily. People can come in and you don’t know what kind of problems they have.”