WINNIPEG — The deaths this year of five people in custody at the Winnipeg Remand Centre is a big red flag and should be investigated in a wide-ranging inquest, says a prisoners rights group.
"I've been in this position for eight years, and I've never been aware of five deaths in a short period of time, all from the same centre,'' said John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba.
"It's an indication to me and to my organization that there could be some systemic problems — might be related to supervision, to staffing levels, to whether the medical units are being properly supported.''
Manitoba Justice does not release details of such deaths when they occur. The province's chief medical examiner is required to order an inquest into custodial deaths of a violent or unexpected nature.
Manitoba Law Court building beside the Provincial Remand Centre in downtown Winnipeg, on Aug. 18, 2014. (Photo: John Woods/Canadian Press)
But the inquests are optional when the deaths are related to medical issues or other causes. The inquests are also narrow in scope, focusing only on each specific incident.
The most high-profile death this year was that of Errol Greene, a 26-year-old man who was being held on a mischief charge.
His common-law wife, Rochelle Pranteau, has said Greene died May 1 after remand centre staff denied him his epilepsy medication and he suffered a seizure. He was taken to hospital where he died.
Father of three Errol Greene and his son Darien is seen in this undated handout photo. Greene died in custody at the Winnipeg Remand Centre on May 1, 2016. (Photo: Rochelle Pranteau handout via Canadian Press)
The Justice Department has launched internal reviews into all five deaths, and the chief medical examiner has been charged with determining whether an inquest is needed in each case.
Hutton said the system is generally secretive — internal reviews are never made public and, in cases where inquests are not called, Manitobans have no insight into what happened.
"The only way they're likely to know is if the results of the internal in-house investigations are released, and if there's an inquest, and we'll be calling for a (combined) inquest into all five deaths.''
The union that represents Manitoba correctional officers said there are shortcomings that need to be addressed, including over-crowding at facilities across the province.
"Our correctional officers say there is an urgent need for better training in a number of areas including recognizing mental-health issues and dealing with fentanyl users,'' Michelle Garownsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union, said in a written statement.
"There is an urgent need for better training."
"Our officers need new equipment and technology, so they can see if someone is trafficking contraband into the facility. Inmates need more access to programs to help address mental-health issues ... and, above all else, we need the government to act on the serious overcrowding in all our provincially run facilities.''
The remand centre houses about 300 people. There have been two deaths in total this year at Manitoba's six other adult jails.