MGEU Must Act on Inmate Deaths

Seven people have died in Manitoba jails in 2016. Five died in the Winnipeg Remand Centre: Hollie Hall, Errol Greene, Robert McAdam, Russell Spence, and Lance Harper. We still don’t know the names of the two who died in the Dauphin and Headingley correctional centres. They all have families and friends who are left grieving their loss and desperately searching for answers. How could a system that prides itself on “protecting the public” allow so many to die?

We – Errol Greene’s friends, family, and supporters – have organized protests, vigils, and public education events demanding justice for Errol and accountability for all of these senseless deaths behind bars. A key player in trying to stifle this dissent has been MGEU, the union that represents the province’s correctional officers. Again and again, in every media statement she’s given, MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky has insisted we “withhold our judgment” until we really know what happened.

In her editorial “Province must act on inmate deaths,” published in the Free Press at the end of October, Gawronsky once again implored us to “suspend judgment about what happened in each case until all the facts are known.” The subhead of the piece was, “Correctional workers seek answers alongside grieving families.” This cannot be allowed to stand. We reject the MGEU’s attempts to portray themselves as our allies until they are willing to back up their talk with action and hold their members accountable for their roles in these deaths. Up to this point, all we’ve heard from the union has been vague and intangible “concerns” about the justice system as a whole, and repeated instructions to stop protesting until the jail finishes investigating itself.

Let’s unpack that for a second: “We must withhold judgment until all the facts are in.”

It sounds reasonable on its face. But when it comes to jails and prisons and what happens to the people locked up there, the facts have a way of never coming in. Prisons and jails do their own internal investigations into deaths in custody. The flawed nature of these investigations was made clear when we learned that the inmates who witnessed Errol Greene’s death were never interviewed by the Winnipeg Remand Centre.

Even if these internal reviews were done properly, their findings are never made public. In fact, the province has no obligation to notify the public when someone dies in one of its jails. We learned this late October when it was first reported in the news that 53-year-old Robert McAdam had died in the Remand Centre a month and a half previously, on September 4th.

Earlier this week, we learned that the Remand Centre has concluded its internal review into two of the deaths that occurred in 2016. The CBC and the Canadian Press filed Freedom of Information requests in order to report on the results. Their requests were denied due to “security concerns.” So someone can die in the custody of the Remand Centre, the Remand Centre can investigate and exonerate itself, and the public will never know the details. We may be waiting a long while for “all the facts to come in”.

When we do get information, it tends to be vague and skewed in favour of the institution. Take for example the Independent Investigation Unit’s press release on Russell Spence’s death, where he was said to have “suffered a medical emergency” during a “struggle” and thereafter “became unresponsive.” Forgive us if we are not satisfied with that.

Inquests are not mandatory into deaths in custody – only in the case of deaths of a “violent or unexpected nature,” a designation presumably handed out during the jail’s investigation of itself. We finally learned this week, seven months on, that there will be an inquest into Errol’s death. But his case is the exception, not the norm, and the inquest only a result of significant public pressure and diligent media coverage. We are not hopeful that the six other families who lost loved ones in 2016 will be as lucky.

In August of this year, Canada’s prison ombudsman published a report entitled “In the Dark,” a 38-page study carried out to address families’ concerns about their difficulty receiving information on how their loved ones died in federal custody. It was found that Corrections Canada consistently blacked out or redacted sections of reports into in-custody deaths, in some cases significantly enough to completely change the context of the information. While the ombudsman’s report covers the federal system and not provincial ones, it demonstrates that cynicism about institutions’ level of transparency with families is well-founded.

“Reserving judgment until the facts are in” presumes a fair, transparent system where information is shared freely and institutions are capable of self-criticism and accountability. This is not what we have here, and we think that MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky knows this. Yet she has continued to admonish the community for protesting, accusing us of jumping to conclusions wherever she can find a microphone. Seven people have died in the “care” of the justice system of this province in less than a year. MGEU, if you were our allies, you would be out in the streets protesting with us, not telling us to settle down. We demand a retraction of your repeated “withholding judgment” statements and a sincere and public apology to Errol Greene’s family – particularly his wife Rochelle.

It’s so rare that all the facts do come in – Manitoba Justice makes sure of that. But let’s remember that the facts that we do have confirm that Errol’s friends, family and fellow inmates have always been telling the truth. Errol’s autopsy confirms that he was denied access to lifesaving medication while in the Remand Centre. He was violently restrained during his first seizure, an action that could have contributed to his death. And he was thrown into his cell without medical attention, where he waited for 45 minutes and one more seizure before an ambulance was finally called.

In the article she penned for the Free Press, Gawronsky conveniently leaves out these facts. Instead, she becomes suddenly very preoccupied with broader systemic issues such as mental health and Indigenous overrepresentation in the provincial jail system. She offers very little in the way of practical solutions to any of these problems, but they are a convenient way of filling a column with concern about the system and sympathy for inmates’ families without having to write even one word about individual accountability for Errol’s death, or to mention the uncomfortable fact that MGEU members were responsible for it.

At a protest in late October, after the fourth death in Remand Centre was reported, members of our group briefly occupied the MGEU office to demand accountability for their members’ actions and an apology for how they have treated the family and friends of those who have died.

Since then, we’ve received several requests from the MGEU to sit down for a meeting and try to find common ground. Gawronsky mentioned these overtures in her editorial, call them a “trust-building dialogue” inspired by the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. We have not taken the union up on these offers for “trust-building.” Even setting aside the appropriation of TRCC principles to justify a meeting where a bunch of prison guards attempt to placate the loved ones of a man their coworkers recently killed, it’s really hard to see much point to it.

We are not interested in hearing self-promotion from “the Manitobans whose job it is to keep inmates, themselves, their co-workers, and the Manitoba public safe.” It has not been our experience that they have kept inmates safe. And we don’t necessarily see jails as places that keep the Manitoba public safe either.

Trust is built through accountability, and MGEU has so far shown none of it. Vaguely alluding to colonialism in the Free Press is not accountability. Bragging about how you’ve pushed the province to “address overcrowding” by building new jails for even more people to get locked up in is not accountability. Passing the buck to the government and pretending to be on our side is not accountability.

Individual corrections officers – MGEU members – were responsible for Errol Greene’s death. Why should we trust the union that is protecting them, first by telling us to shut up, then by trying to distract us with a newfound interest in pointing out systemic issues in jails?

Accountability would be finding justice for Errol and doing whatever you have to do to ensure this doesn’t happen to any more families.

Which corrections officers were involved in denying Errol his medication? Who sat on him while he was having a seizure? Who threw him in his cell? Who listened to him crying and begging for his mother while he was trapped there? Who didn’t call an ambulance until it was too late?

What’s happening to these officers? Are they being fired? Disciplined? Criminally charged? Is the union encouraging them to take responsibility for their contribution to ending Errol’s life? How do we know they don’t still pose a threat to other incarcerated people?

And because justice is about more than just punishment – it’s about trying to repair the harm caused – how will MGEU see that Errol Greene’s family gets justice? His wife is left to raise four children alone, and making reparations is the least that they could do.

Justice is also due for Hollie Hall, Robert McAdam, Russell Spence, and Lance Harper, and the two people who died in the Dauphin and Headingley correctional centres this year. Their families also deserve respect, answers, and concrete action by the jails, the province, and the union to try to atone for the fact that they died on their watch.

We would like to know what Gawronsky and the MGEU are doing to ensure that no one else has to suffer through what these families have suffered these past few months. Tepid acknowledgements of Indigenous overrepresentation and “better training and equipment for corrections officers” are not going to cut it. When we see them lobbying for a massive shift toward de-carceration, the abolition of solitary confinement, and an end to cover-ups masquerading as “internal investigations”. Then, and only then, might we be interested in building partnerships.

For now, we suspect our goals are fundamentally incompatible. Their goal is to encourage unearned trust in the justice system and the people who work in it. Ours is to give voice to the people who understandably distrust the system and to band together to pressure that system for change with everything we’ve got.

Like MGEU, we demand that our government show leadership when it comes to tackling the issues inside our jails. However, we also demand that MGEU step up to the plate and do everything they can to make sure that these seven tragic, preventable deaths are the last to ever happen in a Manitoba jail.


This letter is a collaborative effort by the Justice for Errol Working Group, which includes Errol Greene’s family, friends, and supporters, as well as members of Bar None and other prisoner solidarity activists.

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