The federal prison system is expected to face renewed problems with overcrowding just a few years after Ottawa completes a major expansion plan, a new report by the Auditor-General says.
While the addition of new cells should provide enough space to meet the needs of the current prison population, that solution will be short-lived, and prisons are expected to be at or above capacity in the near future, the report says. Overcrowding is widely believed to contribute to more violence in prisons, affecting the safety of both inmates and staff.
When the Conservative government introduced new mandatory minimum sentences and other criminal justice legislation, many expected to see a sharp rise in the federal prison population. The increase was smaller than expected, and the Auditor-General’s report found the biggest contributor to prison population growth was a decline in discretionary releases by the Parole Board in recent years, rather than the new sentencing system.
“Even though neither the number of admissions nor the length of sentences has significantly increased, the overall offender population in penitentiaries has grown by about 9 per cent since March 2010,” the audit said. It also added that a 2012 review by the CSC found problems with the way the department tracks inmate participation in rehabilitation programs, one factor that may have negatively affected Parole Board decisions.
Security levels and regional overcrowding
The Auditor-General also faulted the department for failing to look at whether population pressures were making it more difficult for inmates to be transferred to lower-security facilities. That is an important consideration, because inmates are more likely to be granted parole from a low-security prison.
The report also noted problems with regional overcrowding that were not addressed by the recent expansions. The CSC determined where it would expand based on the land available for new cells – rather than looking at regional needs.
In addition, many of the expansions were made without considering the age of the facilities or the need for segregation cells and space for health-care facilities, the report found.
As a result of regional population pressures, the Auditor-General found that prisons will need to continue to put two or more inmates in cells designed for one, a practice often called double-bunking. Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said on Tuesday that he does not believe prisoners are entitled to their own cells, adding that the government “won’t be afraid” to use double-bunking to manage the prison population.
However, the federal Corrections department says double-bunking should only be a temporary measure. The Auditor-General found the department is relying on the practice in over-crowded facilities and sometimes housing two inmates in segregation cells or in rooms smaller than five square meters – measures the audit said are contrary to the intent of government’s policy.
The audit raised concerns about the condition of some prisons, noting that about a quarter of the facilities slated for expansion required renovations. After plans to build five new prisons were cancelled, the department will have to pay to fix the problems with existing facilities.
The report also found that cost savings from closing three federal prisons – Kingston Penitentiary, Ontario’s Regional Treatment Centre and the Leclerc Institution in Quebec – were not as high as originally estimated by the CSC. The CSC had said it would save about $120-million a year, while the Auditor-General found that figure to be closer to $86-million.