11/13/2011 10:00 EST | Updated 01/13/2012 05:12 EST

Alberta recruiting hundreds of staff for giant new Edmonton Remand Centre

EDMONTON - Alberta is trying to recruit 400 new guards and other correctional workers to help staff a mega-jail being built for people who are charged with crimes and who are waiting for trial.

The $569-million Edmonton Remand Centre will be able to hold 2,000 inmates in buildings spread over a site larger than 26 football fields. There are contingency plans to build additional housing units to hold 800 more.

About 800 people are currently housed in the sometimes violent, overcrowded downtown remand centre — almost three times as many inmates as it was built for.

Even though Alberta's per-capita crime rate is falling, officials say the massive expansion is needed to help deal with an increasing number of people arrested because of the province's growing population. Alberta is also keeping an eye on the future.

Officials say the new jail will help deal with an influx of inmates expected from proposed federal anti-crime legislation. The Harper government has promised to use its majority to quickly pass the bill in the coming months.

"In the last 10 years we have had continued steady growth. It is a constant rise," said Mike Tholenaer, executive director of the new Edmonton Remand Centre.

"We've got Bill C-10, which is coming at us fairly quickly. That omnibus bill is clearly going to add to our (inmate) population projections as well."

The federal bill calls for tougher drug and sex-crime laws and less use of house arrest. It would also introduce or increase minimum sentences for offences, which critics say would mean more people charged with crimes.

Construction of the giant remand centre is to be complete by next October. Inmates are to start walking through the doors in January 2013.

The plan is for 800 staff, including 570 correctional peace officers — government parlance for guards. Half of the staff will be veterans transferred from other facilities and about half will be new hires.

Tholenaer said the new facility was designed to reduce the potential for violence and to provide more humane care for inmates.

There will be seven housing buildings, including separate units for violent offenders, inmates with mental and medical problems and women.

Older remand centres were designed to hold inmates for less than 10 days. But some inmates now spend up to two years waiting for their cases to be heard, so the expanded centre will for the first time offer education programs and work programs. Inmates could, for example, operate the facility's laundry service.

Tholenaer said newbies and veteran guards are being trained to work face to face with inmates instead of watching prisoners from isolated secure control checkpoints.

"That kind of supervision will significantly reduce incidents of violence because staff are more attuned to what is going on in the living unit. They can nip things in the bud so that things don't get out of hand."

A union official said staff who will work at the centre appear to be satisfied with the training, but there are some concerns about the jail's open concept.

Derrick Karbashewski of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said locating guard work stations in the open is dangerous. He said that could allow an inmate to grab a paper-clip that could be used to pick the lock on handcuffs. Or a prisoner with an infectious disease could spit in a guard's coffee cup.

But overall, staff are looking forward to the change.

"The training is the best in North America," Karbashewski said. "The housing allows for greater separation of different gang members that don't get along."

The recruiting blitz has included visits to schools and job fairs around Alberta as well as an advertising campaign. One of the ads posted on the Internet includes an online questionnaire designed to show if a person has what it takes to be a guard. It also asks whether applicants are willing to work in a potentially hostile environment.

Tholenaer said the first class of new guards recently graduated. So far there's no shortage of prospective recruits, including applicants from other provinces.

"We have had folks from outside of the province that have heard about our recruitment efforts and we have brought people in from other parts of the country."

Alberta Solicitor General Jonathan Denis said once the new remand centre opens it will take pressure off other correctional and remand facilities, which have been temporarily housing overflow from the Edmonton region.

The latest statistics from the department show more than 2,900 inmates are being held daily in provincial correctional and remand centres across Alberta — a 22.5 per cent increase from five years ago.

Denis said while the crime rate is down, the number of people who are charged and held in remand is bound to increase, so it's prudent to build a facility big enough to handle some of that growth now rather than later.

"I'd rather have too much space than not enough."