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Mayoral candidates debate how to handle CNCC prisoner drop-offs

County’s latest figures show nearly 35% of people experiencing homelessness are doing so because they were released from health or correctional facilities
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Should the city’s next council stop the drop-off of former prisoners at the downtown bus station unless they’re from Barrie?

Alex Nuttall, one of the candidates for mayor in the Oct. 24 municipal election, wants council to endorse what his campaign staff calls a new approach that assists individuals released from Central North Correctional Centre (CNCC) in Penetanguishene — also known as the 'superjail' — with their journey back to their community.

“I believe that the City of Barrie has the resources to help our own reform and reintegrate back into society, but we cannot be responsible for the rest of the province's released inmates,” Nuttall said in a release Tuesday afternoon.

“Our social services in Barrie are overrun. It's evident throughout the city with the visible increase of panhandlers at our highway ramps,” he added. “Changes are needed in the way that lasting help is provided.”

This is not Nuttall’s first kick at this particular can.

Last month on Facebook, the former Barrie councillor and MP said: “I know our community is ready and able to help those who are being released that are from Barrie take their next life steps forward. But we cannot be responsible for prisoners from around the province.

“I will work with our provincial government to ensure that those who are not from Barrie are released back into the community that they came from, and that those who are have an opportunity to choose success going forward," he added.  

And on one of Nuttall’s campaign brochures it says: “End the prisoner drop-off in Barrie.”

Barry Ward, who’s also running for mayor and has been on council for 22 years, takes issue with the idea.

“Rather than ‘end’ the drop-off, which is probably impossible — we have no authority to order the Central North Correctional Centre or any other facility to do something — we need to ‘fix’ the drop-off so it is better for Barrie and more humane to those being dropped off,” he said.

“The John Howard Society and Elizabeth Fry Society would love to meet the people being released from correctional facilities to ensure they get on a connecting bus or, if they are from Barrie, get the supports they need so they aren't on the street," Ward added. "The problem is, neither group gets consistent information. They are as frustrated as anyone.”

Ward said he put a motion on council's agenda earlier this year asking the province to hire an integration facilitator for CNCC and it passed unanimously.

“Other places have them,” he said. “That would go a long way to fixing the drop-off. The province has the power to make it happen. In short, let's find workable solutions to problems that benefit everyone.”

Gerry Marshall, who is also running for Barrie mayor, questions the scope of the problem.

“We do see some released inmates coming to Barrie to catch a bus leaving from Barrie to their point of destination,” he said. “When this occurs, our charitable groups are made aware of when the released inmates will arrive in Barrie, and they meet the released inmates at the Barrie Transit Terminal to assist them in making the correct bus connections. 

“The net result of all of this is that released inmates represent less than 10 per cent of our city’s homeless population,” Marshall added. “While the city does not have the authority to dictate how the province manages the release of inmates, including their point of destination post-release, I would seek to meet with CNCC to review how the city and the jail can work better together to ensure 100 per cent of inmates return to their appropriate destination points.”

Weldon Hachey, also running for mayor, wants to know where Barrie residents stand on the issue.

“I don’t want to guess the opinion of Barrie citizens,” Hachey said. “We would surely need to ask, but I think most would agree we would not want to take in a ton of ex-convicts or other cities’ homeless people for that matter.

“If we build a better community and require workers for the businesses we should be growing, then people coming here would be to fill a demand for employment, then that’s different,” he added. “We can’t expect our citizens to take in the burden of people immigrating here without work. If they have family here or employment then I’m fine with that. If we have others coming here and competing for jobs against residents or we have to take care of more unemployed people the answer is clear. 

“If the province wants to pay for them and/or create employment here for them, then we would not have such an issue depending on their history, of course. If they are going to expect us to look after them then we have every right to tell them no," Hachey said.  

Ward also said it’s a problem Queen’s Park must solve.

“It is clear we need the province to take action, hiring someone to ensure those leaving the CNCC are met upon their arrival in Barrie to be given direction, either by putting them on a bus to another community — where I hope they would also be greeted by someone — or connected to the help they need in Barrie,” he said.

“Let's take an approach that is both compassionate and helps break the cycle of people being released, re-offending and going back to Penetanguishene. This is the way to save money," Ward added. “While we are at it, let's encourage the province to also provide funding so that those being released from the RVH (Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre) with no place to go are also given guidance and help.”

Andrew Gordon, Rob Haverson and Mike McCann, all of whom are also running for mayor, did not respond to request for comment from BarrieToday on this matter Tuesday prior to publication. 

The County of Simcoe’s latest homelessness enumeration report states nearly 35 per cent of people experiencing homelessness are doing so because they were released from health or correctional facilities.

City transit staff said last February that pre-pandemic, an average of three bus tickets per day were sought by individuals who had been released in Barrie from CNCC, and were seeking to leave the community.

The city does not receive data on the total number of people released from the correctional facility in Penetanguishene into Barrie.

Andrew Morrison from the Ministry of the Solicitor General, which is responsible for CNCC, said it is not in a position to speculate on platform proposals by candidates running in municipal elections.

But he did say that to support inmates released from provincial custody, ministry staff will, where operationally feasible, make reasonable efforts to support inmates to travel to their home community if they do not have their own means of travelling home — such as arrange transportation to the bus station or purchase a bus ticket.

It would find housing, for example, by asking an inmate if they have a friend or family member who can assist with housing and/or transportation, and by working with community partners, municipalities and other organizations to identify appropriate housing supports.

The ministry connects inmates with available third-party supports, including Indigenous organizations, multi-cultural supports and multi-sector services. It supports inmates to continue taking their prescribed medication and continue with programming and/or treatment in the community.

The ministry says it will also continue to work with community service providers, municipalities and Indigenous communities and organizations to support community reintegration.