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Jail closure leaves jobs, costs up in air

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A number of questions remain following Friday’s announcement that the Fort Frances jail will be closed in the spring of 2004 in the wake of a “super jail” earmarked for Thunder Bay.

“The details haven’t been worked out yet,” Ministry of Correctional Services spokesman Ross Virgo admitted.

The Fort Frances facility is among six community jails being shut down in Ontario as part of a province-wide centralization of prisoners to improve safety and decrease inefficiency.

But some argue there are aspects of the new plan that don’t appear to be all that efficient.

“Certainly from a police perspective, the costs are going to be huge. I honestly don’t have the personnel to [transport prisoners back and forth from Thunder Bay] right now,” noted Fort Frances OPP S/Sgt. Hugh Dennis.

“We’re talking several trips per week,” he noted.

Currently, the OPP has the responsibility of transporting prisoners arrested in their jurisdiction. Fort Frances OPP already must transport juvenile offenders to a centralized young offenders unit in Kenora at a cost to the OPP and the town.

The need to transport adult inmates to Thunder Bay will necessitate a substantial increase in the OPP’s budget, which is billed to the town.

The holding cell at the OPP detachment here will remain open but it is only used to keep people behind bars for a very short period of time.

“We’re talking a matter of hours usually,” said S/Sgt. Dennis.

Virgo admitted how additional transportation costs arising if the OPP is to transport the inmates has not been determined.

“The details have not been worked out but the ministry has committed to meet with police chiefs in all the areas that are affected,” he said.

Virgo also noted inmates already are shipped across the province on a regular basis. “We have a continuous move of prisoners from one destination to another,” he said.

“This is one area the government has said it wants to explore for privatization,” Virgo added.

The Fort Frances jail, built in 1907, can house up to 23 prisoners, including a separate wing for women.

“It changes a lot. We could be empty in the morning and full in the afternoon after the courts,” said superintendent Ian Booth. “Normally we would hold somebody that is sentenced for six months or less.”

The Thunder Bay “super jail” will be built to accommodate 192 prisoners as well as a 32-bed facility for women.

How prisoners will be transported to and from their municipal courts, and how those serving intermittent (or weekend) sentences, will commute from their workplaces to Thunder Bay remains to be seen.

Not only will prisoners have to be transported over great distances but corrections staff here likely will have to relocate as well. In Fort Frances, 24 full-time and nine part-time staff will have to compete with corrections officers from other closed facilities for jobs at new and existing facilities.

The ministry has assured employees that all members of OPSEU will be entitled to displace workers at other jails.

“Seniority dictates if you can get a job and where you can go,” said Corrections officer Chris Bonner-Vickers.

“A person who has 20 years with correctional services would replace the most junior person in the province. If that person is in Ottawa, then that’s where you go if you choose to,” he explained.

Those that choose not to leave would be forced to find another line of work.

“Most people have devoted the majority of their adult lives to law enforcement and the government is saying ‘See you, guys,’” Bonner-Vickers charged.

If the jobs are dispersed on a first-come, first-serve basis rather than by seniority, employees here would be in trouble as the local facility is scheduled to close two years after all other community jails.

The ministry is still looking for a place in Northwestern Ontario to build a “super jail” for young offenders and, so far, all communities are in the running.

“To my knowledge, in the selection process there haven’t been any perspective areas ruled out,” said Virgo.

In the meantime, employees at the Fort Frances jail will have to wait and see where they end up.

“I think it’s very much up in the air right now,” said Bonner-Vickers. “General consensus at the jail is no one really knows at this point but we’re not down yet, we still have four years.”

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