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The Edmonton Institution, shown in January, 2011, is a maximum security prison in northeastern Edmonton.IAN JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

Canada's ombudsman for federal inmates says prisons have become more crowded, violent and worse at rehabilitation under the Conservative government, despite a budget increase of 40 per cent in the past five years.

In a speech heavily critical of the Conservative government's tough-on-crime policies, Howard Sapers criticized "mass incarceration," "arbitrary and abusive conditions of detention," and the victims' rights agenda that Justice Minister Peter MacKay has placed at the centre of his program.

The idea that "punishment with no apparent limits is justified stands many of the principles underlying our democracy and our criminal-justice system on their head," Mr. Sapers told 150 people at a Toronto church on Sunday.

Between March, 2003, and March, 2013, the number of federal prisoners – a federal sentence is one of two years or more – rose by 2,100, or 16.5 per cent, even as crime rates declined sharply. The overall corrections budget is now $2.6-billion a year, but even though 2,700 new cells have been or are about to be added to the system, more than 20 per cent of inmates are double-bunked – two in a cell designed for one.

Mr. Sapers, whose mandate is to report to Parliament on individual and systemic concerns of offenders, said the government has been clear about its agenda and he hopes his comments "reflect a fair analysis of the impact of that agenda on the mandate of my office."

He warned that many of the explosive conditions that fuelled a deadly riot at the Kingston Penitentiary in 1971, riots that led the government to establish the ombudsman's office as a watchdog over prison conditions, are still in play. "As penitentiaries become more crowded, they also become more dangerous and unpredictable places." Violent incidents and the use of restraints, pepper spray and segregation have risen, he said.

The government responded by stressing the importance of victims' rights.

"We make no apologies for standing up for victims' rights, and ensuring their voices are heard in our Justice system," Paloma Aguilar, Mr. MacKay's press secretary, said in an e-mail.

Jean-Christophe de Le Rue, spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, said being tough on crime has produced positive results. "The crime rate has declined, we have closed prisons, and Canadian families feel safer in their communities."

Mr. Sapers listed several Conservative initiatives that he said have undermined the idea that prisoners can be rehabilitated – from tougher sentencing rules such as new mandatory minimums and an end to automatic early release for serious repeat criminals, to tough-on-inmate policies. These include charging more for making telephone calls, increasing room and board charges, eliminating incentive pay for work in prison industries and reducing access to prison libraries.

"To make sure that inmates are not 'coddled' has meant making prisons more austere, more crowded, more unsafe and ultimately less effective," he said. "We seem to be abandoning proportionality and individualized responses in favour of retribution and reprisal."

All these changes, he said, come as the United States moves in the opposite direction. "The hard learned lesson from the U.S. experience is that you cannot incarcerate your way to greater public safety. In fact, one third of U.S. states are in the process of closing prison cells and two thirds are enacting serious sentencing reforms reducing sentence length and time served prior to release."

He said the government is pitting victims against offenders in a way that sets up false choices. "To say that the rights of crime victims should somehow be ranked against the rights of others is to create a false dichotomy."

The entire increase in the prison population, he said, has been made up of aboriginals (who now make up 23 per cent of federal prisoners, though they are just four per cent of Canadians) and members of visible minorities, especially blacks; the number of Caucasian prisoners has dropped three per cent in the past decade.

"You cannot reasonably claim to have a just society with incarceration rates like these. And most troubling, the growth in the custody population appears to be policy, not crime, driven. After all, crime rates are down while incarceration rates grow."