Middle of Nowhere

Remand deaths should wake us up

Six months ago, Errol Greene could feel a seizure coming on. He hadn’t been allowed to take his prescribed epilepsy meds since being brought into the Remand Centre for breaching a probation order on a mischief charge several days earlier. 

Greene was talking to his wife on the phone when his seizure began. He was cuffed, shackled and put in a cell, where he called out for help until a second seizure began. Medical staff carried him out on a stretcher more than an hour after his wife hung up the phone.

These are facts, corroborated by several witnesses and as yet uncontested by Manitoba Corrections.

A few weeks ago, in the same building, another person died. Or, to put it in the words of the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba, “a struggle ensued and the affected person suffered a medical emergency and became unresponsive.”

And again, on October 25, a man in the custody of the Remand centre died after being transported to the hospital earlier in the day.

I read and write about these deaths as an outsider. I’ve never stepped foot in a “correctional facility,” and I’ve never had a father, mother or close friend arrested, let alone incarcerated. I’ve never been stopped by the police, and I didn’t even know where the Remand Centre was until this past summer.

I suspect that many Winnipeggers feel disconnected from the criminal justice system in a similar way.

Many of us go about our days content in the belief that Manitoba Justice consists of bad guys in jumpsuits safely locked away in Headingley.

But it should unsettle us to realize that as we go to our jobs and scour our social media feeds and re-watch Season Four of Orange Is The New Black, up to 289 Winnipeggers are sitting in cages in a nondescript building downtown, and many of them haven’t been convicted of a crime.

It should astonish and infuriate us to find out that our neighbours are dying under the ostensible care of the Province, and yet most of us who are privileged enough to have no personal stake in the matter remain ambivalent.

We need to be upset. And not merely upset that people have died, but that our country’s response to violence, intergenerational trauma, mental health crises, addictions and honest mistakes is further violence.

I’m not saying the Remand Centre should be shut down – though some people are calling for total abolition of the prison system, and we should probably hear them out – but at the very least, as a place to start, we who are unaffected need to pay attention. 

There is a small but active group of Winnipeggers who have been calling for answers and providing support for the loved ones of those inside, and it’s time for the rest of us to get on board.

We can no longer simply take it for granted that people accused of breaching the Criminal Code, missing a court date, or falling behind on fine payments should be locked up with their lives treated as disposable. 

Tim Runtz is the Comments Editor at The Uniter. His regular column, Middle of Nowhere, explores the culture and politics of places around Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 71, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 27, 2016)

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