As Canada shutters old prisons, its penal system is stretched to capacity

Photo by Kevin Van Paassen/Globe and Mail

Thursday, May 10, 2012 – Globe and Mail

Inmates in Canada’s federal prisons have been sleeping in trailers, interview rooms, family visiting spaces and gymnasiums, while the percentage of prisoners sharing cells built for one has nearly doubled in under three years, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The documents, obtained from access to information requests, suggest a penal system stretched to capacity. Canada’s prison population has been rising since 2005 after years of steady decline, growing 7 per cent between March 31, 2011 and May 1, 2012.

Part of the latest increase can be attributed to the government’s tough-on-crime agenda. At the same time, the government will lose 1,000 beds after it closes aging penal facilities such as Kingston Penitentiary and Leclerc Institution in Laval, Que., but says it will more than make up the difference with new units.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator has fielded increasing complaints from both inmates and corrections staff about double-bunking. Two areas of concern are the Edmonton Institute for Women, where women have been housed in interview rooms and family visiting areas, and Kitchener, Ont.’s Grand Valley Institution, which set up a trailer for up to 16 women inmates. Across Canada, the percentage of inmates double-bunking rose from 9.4 in August, 2009 to 17.4 in April, 2012 – nearly three times the historic low of 6.1 per cent in 2004.

In a statement to The Globe on Wednesday evening, Corrections Canada responded that no federal inmates are currently sleeping in interview rooms, but wouldn’t say how many inmates are sleeping in similar temporary locations. The gym at Grand Valley, once considered for use as sleeping space, is now being used as a dining area for the women sleeping in the trailer.

Inmates’ advocates and corrections staff say the situation is costly and dangerous, and potentially violates prisoners’ Charter rights. But Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told The Globe this week that Corrections Canada is respecting inmates’ rights and that the system is able to handle an increased prisoner load thanks to 2,700 new single-prisoner cells that the government has promised to build in the next couple of years.

“Simply because there is double occupancy in cells doesn’t mean it’s overcrowded,” he said. “When it’s necessary to do that, we will do that.”

As part of the federal government’s get-tough policy, Mr. Toews announced plans on Wednesday to make prisoners pay more for room and board in the institutions and to help cover the costs of phone calls. But it seems less than fair, argued John Howard Society executive director Catherine Latimer, to make inmates pay for accommodations that don’t meet Corrections Canada’s own gold standard.

In an April, 2011, letter to Corrections Canada Commissioner Don Head, Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers voiced concerns about conditions in Edmonton and Kitchener.

“The use of interview rooms and other non purpose-built space to accommodate women offenders (some of whom are mentally ill and/or suicidal) is unacceptable,” Mr. Sapers wrote.

In his response, Mr. Head wrote that women were housed in these rooms only “where no other reasonable options are immediately available.” He added that “short and mid-term options” include “temporary accommodations such as portable units or trailers at some sites.”

The squeeze on prison space has corresponded with a 36-per-cent increase in violent incidents at Canadian prisons over the past five years, including assaults against both inmates and staff. Use of force by prison staff is up, Mr. Sapers said, as are safety concerns from staff.

Both prisoners’ advocates and correctional staff argue that overcrowding represents a potentially dangerous situation.

“It creates a very unsafe environment for workers,” said Jason Godin, Ontario regional president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers. “You have tension between two inmates who are double-bunked.… At the same time your access to services is going to be diminished.”

Kim Pate, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society’s national arm, said her organization is looking into whether the overcrowding amounts to cruel and unusual punishment: “Certainly, those with mental health issues … if they’re being held in segregation and isolation and they don’t have access to mental health services, that would contravene international conventions and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

As for the Public Safety Minister, Mr. Toews said he’s confident in the management of Corrections Canada and the fitness of its facilities. “I’m very satisfied with the way that Mr. Head is conducting operations in prisons,” he said. “Obviously there are issues of constitutional law we have to respect in terms of putting people in prisons. I’m sure that if they weren’t [being followed], lawyers would be taking us to court.”

With a report from Carys Mills in Ottawa

Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers’s latest correspondence with

Corrections Canada Commissioner Don Head:

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