One night at the end of April, just before midnight, three soldiers arrived at the military’s internal prison at the south end of the sprawling base in Edmonton and went to work.
There’s always a list of things for the guards on the night shift to do, explains the prison’s commanding officer. Maj. Paul King – patrolling the building, for example, or stripping and waxing the floors.
Really it’s supposed to be five soldiers, King explains – four guards of junior ranks and an NCO to supervise – but some are away on courses, and some positions aren’t filled.
If there had been a prisoner, they would also have had to check on him regularly. But there wasn’t one, and hadn’t been for ten days, since the last one finished his sentence and left.
The Edmonton detention barracks, a small 25-cell prison run on very rigid military lines – when there are inmates – is falling steadily into disuse. On just over half the days since January 2017, it has had no prisoners at all.
However, it still has a staff of 30: a commanding officer, deputy commanding officer, a sergeant-major with the title of ‘chief disciplinarian,’ an administrative staff and enough guards to run the jail 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, on a system of four six-hour shifts a day.
Running the institution costs about $2 million a year.
For 2016, that works out to about $2,280 per inmate/day, or about ten times the cost of civilian maximum-security custody. In 2015, when there were fewer inmates, it came to $3,900 per inmate/day. (By contrast, Ontario charges the federal government $237.13 per inmate/day to confine immigration detainees in its maximum-security jails.)
However, King says the DB has responsibilities that go beyond its inmates. During the Afghan war, for example, it was tasked to start a small detention facility in Kandahar, and its soldiers have to be prepared to leave the country. The Edmonton facility also trains soldiers how to handle prisoners and run jails.
WATCH: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan responds to Global News investigation on underused prison
“We spend that money to maintain a capability in the Canadian armed forces as it serves the country,” King says. “If it has to deploy, or train people to deal with detention operations, that’s part of the responsibility for the prison and detention facility that we run here.”
The capital cost to build the facility in 2000 was $3.45 million, which would be $4.8 million now.
“Yes, it’s going to cost money,” says retired legal officer James MacMillan. “So does everything else in the organization. We have to have that capability, and maintaining that capability is going to cost money, just like maintaining an armoured capability, maintaining an artillery capability.”
(King declined to answer a question about whether the military should use his facility more than it does.)
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These days, prisoners rarely arrive: in 2017 and 2018 to date, the jail has had an admission about every 28 days. But it’s always possible.
“Someone could literally show up at night to be taken in,” King says. “If that’s the case and they get the call, the shift on duty will do the reception for the inmate that comes in.”
When it has at least one inmate, which is more or less the other half of the time, the detention barracks uses a severe and traditional system, aimed at restoring habits of discipline and obedience, that hasn’t changed in many years.
“It’s not so much a jail as an intensive remedial recruit course that is held in a jail,” MacMillan says.
“If there is one overarching philosophy, it’s to reinstil the habit of obedience.”
Inmates spend their waking hours in training, drill, exercise and cleaning and polishing everything around them to a terrifying standard. MacMillan calls it “without a doubt the cleanest government building in Canada.”
When there aren’t inmates, as there now often aren’t, the prison has to be cleaned to the same standard, but the guards end up having to do it.
“We want the standard to be at the same level, so when any inmate arrives the standard is set, and they can just flow right into the standard,” King says.
While the jail’s system hasn’t changed in generations, the inmate population has changed dramatically.
Over the six years from 2011 to 2016, the Edmonton detention barracks (sometimes called ‘Club Ed‘) had either no inmates or only one about half of the time. For 427 days of that period – 139 days in 2013 – it had none at all. The daily average was 1.8, though that dipped to 0.7 in 2013. On only 18 days in that five-year period did the DB have as many as eight or nine inmates, about a third of the number it was built to accommodate.
The data comes from documents released under the Access to Information Act. It doesn’t include the details of offences soldiers were sentenced for, but in some cases we can cross-reference the data to public court-martial records.
Over the last 15 months, the decline has accelerated.
From the beginning of 2017 through mid-April of 2018, a 471-day period, Edmonton had no inmate at all for 236 days, or just over half the period. The prison admitted 18 inmates, or one every 26 days.
It’s a dramatic change. In the mid-1980s, the Edmonton DB had an average inmate population of 55 (in a larger facility) supervised by 35 MPs – not that much larger than the staff today.
But over time, fewer and fewer soldiers have been locked up.
Observers point to several reasons for the decline: a move to lesser punishments, better-quality recruits being fed into the system, and increased civilian influence on military justice.
“It’s (now) a rare occasion where a commanding officer would use detention as a means of punishment,” says former colonel Michel Drapeau, who now practices law in Ottawa. “He would rather have fines, reprimands, extra drill, that kind of thing.”
For many years, a soldier’s commanding officer has been able to send him to detention in a simple proceeding called a ‘summary trial‘. But in this decade, it’s become almost unknown for it to actually happen.
(It is more or less always a ‘him’. Of the 178 admissions in the data released to Global News, all but one inmate was male. It is usually a soldier: there were 13 inmates from the army for every one from the navy, and nine for every one from the air force. “The army has always had a more immediate understanding of the need for a high level of discipline,” MacMillan explains.)
Sentences of detention fell from 63 in fiscal 2010-11 to only nine in 2016-17, though some of these were suspended sentences.
Soldiers can also be sent to detention by a court-martial, a more formal process usually reserved for more serious offences.
Detention has come to be seen as a last resort, rather than a normal option in a commanding officer’s disciplinary toolbox. (There are exceptions: on one day in February of 2016, four soldiers arrived in Edmonton to serve 21 days each.)
“The quality of the recruit we’re getting now is a lot higher,” MacMillan explains.
“People concentrate on the fact that their physical fitness isn’t as good as it used to be. But they’re better-educated, they’re smarter, and they’re better-adjusted. It makes sense that there would be fewer of them getting into trouble.”
And for better or worse, the military justice system has started to take on more civilian characteristics.
“There are pressures on the military to reform the military justice system to make it more akin to the civilian justice system,” Drapeau says.
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The Edmonton detention barracks operates under a system that hasn’t changed much for many decades.
“The routine and training of an inmate shall require the maximum effort and the strictest discipline,” the regulations begin.
Prisoners are forbidden to speak with other inmates, smoke or have visitors until they earn 112 marks, which are given out at a maximum of eight per day, but fewer for misbehaviour.
Misbehaviour includes idleness, singing or whistling, ‘inattention’ or ‘use of blasphemous or other improper language’.
“When most arrive here, they are very stressed and concerned,” King says. “They have a very limited idea of what they’re coming into.”
“The tone is strict and direct. The program is intense.”
Bread and water as a punishment ended in 2011. Under that system, an inmate could be restricted to fourteen ounces (400g) of bread a day, or about eight slices of bread, for three days or less. A somewhat more lenient diet called for seven ounces (200g) of bread at breakfast and dinner, and a main meal at midday consisting of two ounces (50g) of porridge, two ounces of peas or beans and eight ounces (225g) of potatoes, which works out to about one large potato.
Other than abolishing bread and water, however, very few changes were made to the original rules, which had last been revised in 1967. (The era the rules were written in is hinted at by the use of male pronouns and Imperial measurements throughout.)
“It has kept the very old-school mentality that a lot of the armed forces lost in the 1980s and 90s, when things were heavily civilianized,” MacMillan says.
Prisoners drill on the parade square at No. 1 Canadian Field Punishment Camp, Vught, Netherlands, in April of 1945. (LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA)
In generations past, imprisonment was seen as a fairly normal part of military life, at least for junior soldiers.
“When I was a commanding officer in the 1980s, it was not uncommon to have a commanding officer sentencing somebody to 30 days detention,” Drapeau remembers. “Military authorities used that as a preferred method of punishment for young soldiers, certainly those of private and corporal ranks.”
An idea persists that in generations past a senior NCO couldn’t be taken seriously unless he’d spent at least some time in detention, but, MacMillan says, at least part of this is urban legend.
“I suspect that the rite of passage thing is seen more as a retrospective thing. I think they probably felt differently at the time.”
“The people I’ve heard speak of it nostalgically are speaking of episodes in the very distant past.”
One thing that soldiers wouldn’t have experienced in generations past, though, is going through the experience alone – other than the ever-vigilant staff.
In the past, when the detention barracks were fuller, soldiers could at least have endured its rigors as part of a group. But having to be the facility’s only inmate turns up the intensity even further, Drapeau says.
“To be there by yourself – you have all of those eyeballs watching your every move, your every breath. If you are two, you can share the psychological pressure. If you’re there by yourself, you’d have to be a physically and psychologically very strong person.”
However, King says, inmates have limited contact with each other in any case.
“They don’t work together. They have their individual routines that they follow and go through, so they follow it regardless of if there’s one or ten.”
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It’s fair to say that most, if not all, soldiers who are sent to Club Ed go there for behavior that would have got them fired from most civilian workplaces without much in the way of a second thought.
But part of the idea of detention is to protect the investment made in a soldier’s training, which would be lost if he was kicked out of the military, King and MacMillan both say. If the problem behaviour is removed, the soldier can be useful again, the thinking goes.
“We build them back up and send them out into the organization so that they can be successful,” King says. “We give them a chance to refocus, give them new direction, and put them back into units.”
WATCH: Former MP Laurie Hawn has spent his life both in the military and in politics. This week, Global News revealed the detention facility at the Edmonton Garrison is empty much of the time, but costs taxpayers millions a year. Hawn joined Global News at Noon to share his perspective on why the facility is still important.
A small handful of soldiers who go through Edmonton are ‘imprisoned,’ which means that the military plans to kick them out when they leave, either to the street or to a civilian prison. But the vast majority are ‘detained,’ meaning that the military is at least open to keeping them. Detention can last for long periods: three soldiers in our data were detained for 60 days, and one for 90 days.
Public details of courts-martial give some glimpses into the back stories of some of the inmates there for more serious offences:
Soldiers have also been sent to Edmonton in recent years for more minor offences, including striking a superior officer, disobedience of a lawful command, being AWOL, drunkenness, abuse of subordinates, and a catch-all offence which includes “any act, conduct, disorder or neglect to the prejudice of good order and discipline“.
“The whole concept of detention is that there is a road back,” MacMillan says.
“It’s a financially pragmatic thing. It costs less to put someone in Edmonton for 30 days than it does to take a civilian off the street, select him, recruit him, train him, and get him up to the standard that the prisoner should be at.”
However, nobody tracks whether former inmates leave the military after they’re released, says military police spokesperson Maj. Jean-Marc Mercier.
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In general, soldiers released from the detention barracks don’t come back.
Of 131 admissions since 2012, only 10 inmates were there for a second time, Mercier said. None were there for a third time.
However, since the military doesn’t track how many former inmates leave the service after release, and are in no danger of being sent back to Club Ed – whatever else may happen to them – so it’s hard to say what the true return rate was.
Drapeau argues that it’s time to close Canada’s last detention barracks.
“The fact that we have a reduced population at the detention centre leads us to ask if we need this facility on a full-time basis.”
The military’s worst offenders could be sent to civilian jails, and minor offenders dealt with in ways that don’t involve a cell, he says.
“I don’t see why the military couldn’t do away with detention.”
MacMillan, however, makes a case for keeping it, even if the last DB is mostly empty at the moment. Like many other things the military does, it might be needed in the future. (Canadian artillery didn’t fire a shell in anger between Korea, in 1953, and Afghanistan in 2002, but the capability it represented was maintained all that time and was ready when it was needed.)
“Maintaining the detention barracks maintains the ability to run one,” he argues. “We have to have that capability, and maintaining that capability is going to cost money, just like maintaining an armoured capability, maintaining an artillery capability.”
“One thing we’ve learned is that losing a capability has a cost built in as well.”
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