January 5, 2012 9:32 am

New Edmonton Remand Centre to house growing inmate population

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EDMONTON – When the new Edmonton Remand Centre opens in January 2013, roughly a third of its cells will likely sit empty.

If history is any indication, that won’t last long.

“There has been an unprecedented rise in Alberta’s inmate population for a decade, as it tends to follow the provincial population,” said Mike Tholenaer, executive director of the new Edmonton Remand Centre. “You never want to open a facility like this already at capacity.”

In 2001, the Alberta Solicitor General was responsible for 1,903 remanded inmates. By 2006, that number had jumped to 2,436. In 2011, the same population had grown to 2,985.

Edmonton’s current remand centre is infamous for overcrowding. Built in 1979 to house 388 inmates, close to 800 are now behind its bars. That does not include roughly 500 other remanded Edmonton inmates that are housed in institutions in Fort Saskatchewan and Red Deer.

For the first years of its life, the new remand centre will have no such worries. It’s a monster, the biggest centre of it’s kind in North America in terms of the people it can hold and its physical dimensions.

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However, it will eventually fill up as Alberta’s population grows, Tholenaer said. He expects anti-crime legislation out of Ottawa to increase the number of people who pass through the correctional system.

The facility is built to hold 1,952 inmates, Tholenaer said, but could expand to hold 864 more. The centre is 645,000 square feet, or, eight CFL football fields. There will be almost 1,500 cameras to watch inmates and more than 3,000 locked doors.

Perhaps the most important number is only two inmates will live in a cell intended to house two inmates. The current Edmonton Remand Centre hasn’t seen such uncrowded accommodations in years.

“The overcrowding issue is front and centre for us right now,” Tholenaer said. “The current centre was built in an era that didn’t take into account the gang issues we deal with today, the mental-health issues we deal with today.”

The current centre has fallen behind in housing specialty inmates because of a lack of resources, he said.

Inmates with gang affiliations, or former affiliations, must be kept separate from each other. Nearly 80 per cent of male inmates have addictions issues that go untended during their remand time. Around 30 per cent of female inmates suffer from mental-health problems and require special attention.

“We have no capacity at the ERC for that,” Tholenaer said.

The mammoth construction is still underway.

Inmates are sent to remand to wait for either a trial, other court appearances or transfer to a prison to serve their sentence.

The current centre has 360 staff, from administrative positions to correctional officers. The new centre will employ more than twice that, with 731 positions. The first new crop of officers, 80 of them, were hired in September and are now bring rotated through correctional facilities across Alberta to give them experience among inmates.

The new centre will be far more technologically advanced than its predecessor. Locked doors will have vascular scanners that identify officers by the vein patterns in the back of their hands. There will be a large, metal scanner chair that new inmates will sit in to ensure they are not trying to smuggle anything inside.

There will also be information kiosks for inmates that keep track of court dates, release dates, scheduled visits and how much money an inmate has in their account for the canteen. Before, inmates had to ask correctional officers to track such information for them. The kiosks will also provide access to a digital law library.

Also, there will be more than 50 booths that allow inmates to make court appearances by closed-circuit television without leaving the secure facility.

“Far and away, this is the most advanced facility of its kind,” said Tholenaer, who toured centres in Canada and the United States during the planning of the project. “Everybody in the country is watching this one.”

The new Edmonton Remand Centre is budgeted to cost $568 million.

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