Saskatchewan's only jail for women is bursting at the seams.
Prince Albert's Pine Grove Correctional Centre was designed for 180 inmates. As of Thursday, a near-record 216 women were being held there.
On top of that, a group of roughly 30 male inmates has been sleeping in the gymnasium since June. It was supposed to be a short term measure to alleviate crowding elsewhere, but the men are still there.
This overcrowding can't continue, said Sue Delanoy, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saskatchewan.
"There's no room at the inn," Delanoy said.
The crowding can increase tensions among inmates and with staff, she said. That can lead to mental health issues, but also an increased risk of violence. More women are being placed in solitary confinement, or segregation, with more than a dozen currently there, Delanoy said. Months without a gymnasium is making the problem even worse, she said.
'Decarceration' should be the goal, says advocate
Delanoy and other Elizabeth Fry staff visit the women every week. She said she is hopeful things will improve in the coming months when the new Saskatchewan Hospital opens in North Battleford. It will have 96 spaces for male and female adult inmates with mental health issues.
Although those beds may relieve some of the pressure, a real solution will require bolstering housing programs, addictions treatment and job training, she said. She said better services would prevent women from being jailed in the first place. It would also keep those released from coming back.
She said a goal of "decarceration" would be safer and cheaper over the long term for inmates, staff and the public.
"We've got to start looking at alternatives and that's community supports," Delanoy said. "We'd like to see a shift in thinking."
She also pointed out the need for a greater focus on parenting supports and early childhood development. Most of the women in Pine Grove are the children or grandchildren of Indian residential school survivors, she said.
"We can't put up a 'No vacancy' sign": corrections official
Ministry of Corrections and Policing spokesperson Drew Wilby said they try to avoid the type of overcrowding underway at Pinegrove, but a number of factors have caused it. October is usually a busy month, but the gymnasium situation is taking a while to resolve because of construction at some of the male jails. Wilby emphasized the male inmates are completely separated from the women.
Wilby agreed a wholistic approach is necessary, but said the corrections system can't do it alone. He said partnerships with other government agencies and groups such as the Salvation Army hold promise.
"We take what the courts give us. We can't put up a 'No vacancy' sign," Wilby said.
"We could always do more. The government is firmly committed to that."