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Province didn’t do analysis of corrections system before deciding to build Fredericton-area jail, records show

In 40 pages of records turned over by the Department of Justice and Public Safety after an eight-month access-to-information battle, there’s no report assessing the business case for building a new Fredericton-region jail, including how much it might cost to operate, or any assessment of how much space the correctional system might need in the future.

A more detailed assessment was done in 2008, before the province built two new provincial jails

An empty jail cell is shown, including bunk beds, a sink and toilet, and two stools with a desk. The cell is located in the Southeast Regional Correctional Centre in Shediac, New Brunswick.

The province didn't do any kind of detailed analysis to map out the future of corrections in New Brunswick before announcing plans to build a new jail in the Fredericton region, according to records reviewed by CBC News.

In 40 pages of records turned over by the Department of Justice and Public Safety after an eight-month access-to-information battle, there's no report assessing the business case for building a new Fredericton-region jail, including how much it might cost to operate, or any assessment of how much space the correctional system might need in the future.

The province plans to build a 109-bed, $42-million provincial jail in Grand Lake.

CBC filed a right-to-information request to the department last August, asking for records that discuss the need for the new jail.

The department initially refused to provide any records to CBC, and wouldn't share the records with the ombud for her review, claiming all the records are confidential cabinet documents. The province later reversed course on keeping the records from the ombud, and eventually released some records to CBC.

An ombud investigation into the government's refusal to provide records is ongoing.

'Custody use alone was not effective'

In 2008, before the province built new jails in Shediac and Dalhousie, the province hired a consultant to examine needs in the correctional system and report on how the system should look in the future.

The 86-page document, Building Hope: Toward a Renewed Vision of New Brunswick Corrections, concluded the province needed more space in the system to ease overcrowding. Soon after, the province announced new jails in Shediac and Dalhousie to replace older, smaller facilities.

But the report also warned that research showed "custody use alone was not effective in reducing re-offending or repeated returns to jail by inmates," since most people in the system are dealing with both addiction and mental health issues.

"New Brunswick should reduce or end the criminalization and use of jail custody for citizens with mental illness and addictions issues," the report recommended.

More than a decade later, as New Brunswick contemplated building a new jail in the Fredericton region, it doesn't appear the provincial government conducted a similar in-depth analysis of the system like it did in 2008.

The department also didn't consider the 2008 report before deciding to build a new jail in the Fredericton area.

A written statement from the Department of Justice and Public Safety says it focused on evidence from 2021 onward, along with costs from previous correctional construction projects, when making the decision. It also says the 2008 report would be in the archives now.

"We can confirm that, in assessing needs in 2021, department officials did not search the Provincial Archives for historical documents," spokesperson Coreen Enos wrote.

Inside the records

In August 2021, Deputy Minister Mike Comeau emailed two other department staff to ask them to create a memorandum to executive council regarding "a new jail," according to the records CBC received.

A few days later, other staff were asked to generate statistics for the submission to cabinet, including rates of incarceration and whether they're increasing, and whether the ratio of staff to inmates is safe.

A research analyst sent three charts, which show an increase in the rate of drug trafficking crimes in the community, and a chart showing the trend in adult admissions to correctional facilities.

"The trend is downward for the most part, especially in 2020-21," the analyst wrote, referring to the trend in admissions.

Another staff member wrote that the number of new admissions has climbed since the beginning of 2021, and the staff ratio to inmates was "stretched."

Less than four months later, the province issued a press release to say it would build a new jail in the Fredericton region, quoting then-Public Safety Minister Ted Flemming as saying the correctional system was "stretched."

The announcement came without much warning. The jail wasn't mentioned in the party's election platform in either 2018 or 2020.

'Numbers don't lie'

In the 40 pages sent to CBC, the most substantive assessment of the need for a new jail seems to come in a 14-page presentation called, "N.B. Correctional Services Population Over-Crowding." It's dated August 10, 2022, almost eight months after the province had already announced the new jail.

Under a slide called, "Numbers don't lie," a graph shows "a steady increase" in people arriving in the correctional system over a span of seven months.

The presentation outlined the negative effects of overcrowding in jails, including heightened tensions, and an increase in violent incidents and "incidents where use of force is required."

It also describes some of the reasons for the increase in admissions: "contributing societal situations," lengthy sentences, and more people in jail on remand, where people spend time behind bars while waiting for a court appearance, often before they've been convicted of a crime. It doesn't cite any sources for that information.

Correctional system was three people over capacity on average in July

The province's most recent data show the adult male correctional system had 473.4 people on average in it in July, just slightly above the 470 capacity number. It includes people who are not physically present inside jails, including people in hospital or on a supervised temporary release, but who may be required to go back to jail.

Statistics Canada data shows that up to 2022 (the most recent year where data is available), the increase in admissions seems to be driven by people in jail on remand.

The province was also dealing with overcrowding in its jails in 2008, before the province built new correctional facilities in Shediac and Dalhousie.

But the Building Hope report found the issue of overcrowding was complex, and not necessarily caused by crime rates, which were falling at the time. It cited the increasing use of remand and the federal government's "tough on crime" approach as two reasons for the increase in people behind bars.

'A closed approach'

Criminologist Justin Piché studied the Building Hope report as part of his PhD research on prison construction. He obtained it through access to information several years ago and shared it with CBC.

Piché, who now teaches at the University of Ottawa, said the government "didn't even do their homework" before announcing a new jail in the Fredericton region, noting the lack of a document like Building Hope.

"They're using a closed approach where essentially they decide, they announce and then they defend the decision, rather than an open approach that involves public consultation to examine whether or not prison construction is needed, with a long-term view that moves beyond the present situation — looking at the past, looking at future trends, not just what's happened in the last year," he said.

While the records sent to CBC show the province looked into other options for housing prisoners, including adding a unit for men to the women's jail in Miramichi or creating dorm-style housing in jail gyms in Shediac and Saint John, there's little discussion around community alternatives, Piché said. The 2008 Building Hope report encouraged the province to use more community alternatives such as drug and mental health courts.

"Deal effectively with addictions and you substantially deal with re-offending," the report says.

Saint John is the only location in the province with a mental health court.

New jail to be built in Austin's riding

The department's statement says it's released all records about why a new correctional centre is required "other than those exempt from disclosure under the law."

Earlier this year, the province scrapped plans to build the jail in Fredericton. A proposal to rezone land to make way for the new jail was approved, but some neighbours were opposed to it.

The province announced last month that it would build the jail in Grand Lake in Public Safety Minister Kris Austin's riding, drawing criticism from the Opposition Liberals, who questioned how the decision was made.

One of the reasons the government has offered for building a new jail is to reduce travel between Fredericton and the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre.

The new site in Grand Lake is about a 45-minute drive from the downtown Fredericton courthouse, compared to about an hour and 25 minutes between the Saint John jail and Fredericton courthouse.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send your tips to NBInvestigates@CBC.ca.

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