If federal prisons operated like motels, Canada’s penitentiaries would have giant neon vacancy signs outside their barbed fences.
With the inmate population dropping and the number of empty cells increasing, federal correctional ombudsman Ivan Zinger says the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) should consider shuttering some buildings.
“It is an opportune time to reassess CSC’s existing aging infrastructure and consider closure of penitentiaries that are beyond their service life or those which are not responsive or conducive to rehabilitation objectives,” Mr. Zinger told The Globe and Mail.
Figures show CSC currently has about 2,000 empty cells, roughly equivalent to four or five average-size penitentiaries.
Cell vacancies will only grow, Mr. Zinger says, as the inmate population continues to shrink, a trend owing to a complex array of factors including declining crime rates and a renewed emphasis on inmate rehabilitation and having convicts serve sentences in the community.
The current scenario would have been unthinkable just a decade ago, when the CSC, the Parliamentary Budget Office, the Auditor-General and others were warning of an impending overpopulation crisis in the federal system. At the time, the Conservative government had introduced new sentencing legislation aimed at doling out longer prison terms to certain convicts.
CSC estimated its offender population would climb by 30 per cent, to nearly 19,000, requiring rapid construction of more than 4,000 new cells. To meet the need, Ottawa committed $750-million to new construction in 2009.
Many within the Correctional Service questioned the decision. “At the time I was the Warden in charge of the reception centre in Pacific region and expressed my alarm with plans to build about 400 new cells in the Pacific region,” said Glen Brown, now a sessional instructor with the Simon Fraser University school of criminology.
The population surge never arrived in federal prisons. Three years later, the government announced three institutions would close: Kingston Penitentiary, Leclerc Institution in Laval, Que. and a regional treatment centre in Kingston.
Archaic institutions remain in the CSC portfolio. Two penitentiaries – Stony Mountain in Manitoba and Dorchester in New Brunswick – were built during the reign of Queen Victoria. A third, Saskatchewan Penitentiary, opened when Wilfrid Laurier was in power.
Even those buildings constructed 40 or 50 years ago don’t meet present-day correctional standards, according to Mr. Zinger.
“Many look like bunkers and have very little architecture that would be conducive to the level of program delivery and service delivery we expect today,” he said.
Instead of closing whole facilities, some institutions featuring mixes of older and new buildings could shut down single units, he said.
The CSC says it always needs to maintain a certain number of empty cells to adequately manage populations during construction and renovation projects.
“Having the additional cells also provides flexibility in how CSC safely and securely manages its complex population, particularly in situations where groups of inmates may need to be separated for safety and security reasons,” spokeswoman Lindsay Holloway said.
The Correctional Service currently has no plans to close institutions, she added.
The president of the union representing federal correctional workers called Mr. Zinger’s views on vacant cells “premature.”
“We have to be very careful about this kind of thing,” Jason Godin said. “Certain populations belong in certain jails. If you close one jail or one unit, there might not be another facility out there that can handle that particular population.”
As an example, he referred to the five prisons in CSC’s Atlantic region, which has the country’s highest vacancy rate at nearly 30 per cent. The region has one facility of each major population type: women, mental-health treatment, maximum security, medium security and minimum security.
“You close one and you have nowhere for that security classification to go,” he said.
There are other risks in closing institutions. When inmates outstrip cells, staff are forced to place two inmates in cells built for one – the practice of double-bunking.
Current double-bunking rates hover around 5 per cent, down from 20 per cent a few years ago.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to be in a position where you are closing too aggressively and have to go back to double-bunking,” Mr. Zinger said.