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Barbed wire seen on an exterior fence at Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont. Thursday, April 19/2012. The government announced today that they will close the maximum security facility which is home to some of Canada's most notorious criminals.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The Harper government is shuttering three prison institutions, including the historic Kingston Penitentiary, in a bid to demonstrate to Canadians that its tough-on-crime agenda can be frugal even as Ottawa is expanding more than 30 corrections facilities across the country.

Critics warn the closings could lead to overcrowding and violence at other prisons if about 900 inmates from the shuttered facilities are relocated before sufficient new cells have been added.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Ottawa has the capacity to close the prisons because its law-and-order legislative record is not swelling inmate populations as much as even internal estimates had predicted.

It's a bold assessment given that a massive Conservative law-and-order bill that imposes stiffer sentences on offenders was passed by Parliament only this year.

"We will not spend a dollar on corrections that is not necessary to keep Canadians safe," Mr. Toews said. "In fact, given that the influx of new prisoners originally predicted even by my own department is not materializing, I am announcing that our government will be closing two prisons."

Three penal institutions will be shut within the next two years as a result of Thursday's announcement.

These including the maximum-security Kingston Pen, Canada's oldest prison. Opened in 1835, it has housed notorious killers including Paul Bernardo, Russell Williams and Clifford Olson.

Also on the chopping block is the medium-security Leclerc Institution in Laval, Que., which was built in 1961.

Last on the list is the Regional Treatment Centre, a psychiatric facility on the grounds of Kingston Pen.

The Conservatives say shuttering these facilities and moving inmates to more efficient prisons will save $120-million a year. By closing Leclerc, they said, Ottawa will save about $15,000 per prisoner.

In recent years, the Harper government embarked on a plan to spend $2.1-billion over five years expanding prisons to cope with an expected increase in federal incarceration as a result of toughening crime laws.

Mr. Toews said Ottawa had estimated there would be 17,000 federal prisoners by 2012 as a result of a stricter justice system, but projections have fallen far short of this.

The minister said other prisons can accommodate the increased load because the government is adding at least 2,400 cells to other federal facilities.

Figures provided by Correctional Service of Canada, however, show the federal prison population has almost hit its rated capacity.

In March, 2012, the federal prison inmate population averaged 14,916, Correctional Services Canada said on Thursday.

The federal system's rated capacity is 15,115 inmates, the department said.

The federal ombudsman who fields complaints from inmates says he will be glad to see the end of the Kingston Penitentiary, but warned there are not yet enough new cells built to accommodate all of the prisoners who will be displaced by the closing of the three facilities.

Parts of Kingston Penitentiary are relics from the past and the institution is a "far from optimal" place to house offenders, Howard Sapers, the federal Corrections Investigator, said on Thursday.

He said the rest of the prison system is squeezed for space.

"There's already over 1,000 men living in substandard living conditions, more than 1,000 living in the upper bunk of a cell designed for one offender. Double bunking is currently at around 15 per cent across the system."

The union representing Canada's prison guards warns that things will get more dangerous as a result of the disruption and displacement caused by the moves.

"We're talking about 900 of Canada's most dangerous inmates: serial killers, organized crime figures, and people with severe mental-health problems," said Pierre Mallette, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

With a report from Carys Mills in Kingston