Thirty-five years after his office was set up in answer to a deadly riot at Kingston Penitentiary, the correctional investigator says history is dangerously repeating itself.
Corrections officials now give themselves 60 working days - up from 15 - to deal with the most serious inmate grievances, complaints that sometimes lead to explosive uprisings, Howard Sapers said yesterday in his annual report to Parliament.
Such grievances include harassment and discrimination along with claims of unfair segregation and various rights violations.
Mr. Sapers has a ready answer for those who roll their eyes at the dissatisfaction of sometimes brutal convicts.
"It would be easy to dismiss this," he said in an interview. "But internal grievance resolution ... is a core, central component of effective, safe correctional practice."
Two inmates died and much of the fortress-like prison was trashed during a four-day riot that erupted at Ontario's Kingston Pen on April 14, 1971.
A public inquiry found that the prison system's failure to deal fairly with inmate grievances was a major factor, Mr. Sapers said.
He chides the Correctional Service of Canada for repeatedly extending the timeline for meeting its legal duty to resolve inmate complaints - especially those that have been deemed serious enough to clear two of three assessment levels.
"The explanation given by the service is that ... they can only resolve 15 to 20 per cent of these very significant grievances within the previous [15 working days]time frame.
"So instead of working to comply with their policy and legal requirement, they simply made the time frame elastic so that it fit their current level of effort."
Mr. Sapers makes a total of 12 recommendations in his report covering 2007-08.
He calls for faster action on inmate deaths, injury and harassment and more front-line training for staff grappling with a growing number of unstable prisoners.
"There has been no slowdown in the numbers of mentally ill offenders coming into federal penitentiaries. So there are only increasing demands on staff to deal with this very difficult population."
It has been estimated that up to 20 per cent of inmates have a mental illness that requires treatment. Of these, seven to nine per cent have a serious illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.
Last year's federal budget added $16-million a year for mental-health programs in prisons.
But Mr. Sapers says major problems recruiting and retaining staff have meant few new additions to ease stress on the system.
The corrections service deferred to Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan when asked for comment.
"The Government of Canada takes the concerns raised in the correctional investigator's report seriously," he said in an e-mailed response.
"We are committed to ensuring that Correctional Service Canada is a strong, accountable organization that delivers real results to make sure Canadians are safe and secure."