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Correction Canada's Stony Mountain Institution just north of Winnipeg, Aug. 8, 2011. (John Woods/The Globe and Mail/John Woods/The Globe and Mail)
Correction Canada's Stony Mountain Institution just north of Winnipeg, Aug. 8, 2011. (John Woods/The Globe and Mail/John Woods/The Globe and Mail)

Watchdog says prison violence on rise; Toews says it has decreased Add to ...

Canada’s federal prisons are getting more crowded, more tense and more polarized between young and old inmates – and that’s contributing to an increase in violence and deaths behind bars, says Ottawa’s prison watchdog.

As new rules send more people to prison for longer periods of time, correctional investigator Howard Sapers argues, it’s putting a greater strain not only on Canada’s aging prison infrastructure but also on its inmates.

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“The indicators that we look at in terms of getting a measure of institutional violence are all going in the same direction,” Mr. Sapers said. “And they’re all going up.”

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews argues that’s not so.

“I haven’t seen that statistic,” he said. “There isn't as much prisoner-on-prisoner violence that used to exist eight or nine years ago, before we put in policies that restricted some of the movement of prisoners.”

And, he added, Ottawa's plans to spend hundreds of millions on maximum-security cellblocks in medium-security prisons will help alleviate problems of violence and in-custody deaths.

Wednesday is Prison Justice Day in Canada, marking 37 years since Eddie Nalon killed himself after weeks in solitary confinement at Kingston’s Millhaven Penitentiary. And this year, the day usually marked by inmates’ calls for better treatment comes as Canada girds for a changing inmate population even as the existing one, researchers say, gets more volatile.

It's a demographic time bomb of overcrowded cells and an influx of younger prisoners clashing with inmates growing old in jail. By 2014, Mr. Sapers says, nearly a third of inmates will be sharing cells designed for only one person. And he argues it’s only going to get worse as the federal government prepares to move forward on a slate of tough-on-crime bills that will incarcerate more offenders.

Mr. Toews says the government is more than prepared for the inmate influx expected if the majority government passes its promised omnibus crime bill – 11 pieces of legislation that will have the aggregate effect of making it easier to get into prison, and harder to get out.

“Will it have an impact? Obviously it’s going to have an impact,” Mr. Toews said. “The more prisoners you have, the more staff you need. So from the financial point of view you need to prepare for that.”

And he pledged to ensure that access to rehabilitation programs and health resources keeps pace with a growing population.

In the meantime, Ottawa is creating more than 2,500 new spaces for the increases in prisoners it’s already seeing, with the possibility of hundreds more on the way.

What makes many of these unique is that they’re designed for maximum-security specifications, but will be built in medium-security institutions. Mr. Toews says this will give prison guards more flexibility in dealing with problematic prisoners.

“Some of the new units that we are constructing are going to ease some of the restrictions that we have in terms of being able to move individuals around,” Mr. Toews said. “That flexibility will provide the administrators in the prison with options that simply are not available now.”

From 2009-10 to 2010-11, Mr. Sapers says, inmate injuries rose more than 60 per cent; self-harm rose about 62 per cent. That’s part of a longer trend, says John Winterdyk, chair of Mount Royal University’s Centre for Criminology and Justice Research. Over the past decade, he says, the rates of both violence and in-custody deaths have risen faster than the prison population.

“Crowding is a reason,” Mr. Sapers said. “Lack of access to programs is a reason. The increase in the number of offenders with significant mental-health issues is a reason. All of these factors together combine into a more volatile climate.”

But Mr. Toews argues Canadians are getting what they voted for – a focus on taking criminals off the streets.

“If you’re concerned about prisoners inside prisons, that’s fine: I’m concerned about them too. But my paramount concern is about violence against people out on the street who are innocent,” he said. “We will take whatever steps are necessary to accommodate those [offenders]that cannot be out on the street.”

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