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A prisoner is shown in the Toronto Jail on Feb. 24, 2011.PETER POWER/The Globe and Mail

The federal prison system is expected to face renewed overcrowding problems just a few years after Ottawa completes a plan to add thousands of new cells, a new report by the Auditor-General says.

The report also found that one of the key reasons for prison population growth is not a series of new mandatory minimum sentences introduced in recent years – but a bottleneck when it comes to releasing offenders on parole before their sentence is completed.

The Auditor-General's report examined federal prisons over the past three years, looking closely at expansions and facility closures meant to respond to prison population changes and reduce the cost of housing federal offenders. The Correctional Service of Canada is adding more than 2,700 new cells to 37 facilities to deal with growth in the overall number of prisoners.

The new cells should provide enough additional space to meet the needs of the current prison population, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson found. However, the report found that the solution will be short-lived, and overcrowding is expected to be a problem again a few years after the expansions are completed in 2015.

"We found that CSC's updated population projection shows that it will again be at or over capacity within a few years of completing construction," a summary of the findings states.

Ottawa planned in 2009 to build new cells and add the ability to double bunk more prisoners to deal with an expected growth in the prison population. It also said it would build five new prisons, but cancelled those plans – and closed three existing prisons – when it determined the population was not growing at the pace it had expected.

But a 14 per cent decline in discretionary releases by the Parole Board in recent years means more prisoners are staying in custody for longer – resulting in a 9 per cent increase in the overall prison population since March 2010.

That's despite increased investments in prison rehabilitation programming, according to the Auditor-General's report. The report found the CSC was not doing enough to document offender participation in rehabilitation programs, which it noted could negatively affect Parole Board decisions.

The department also did not look at whether population pressures were making it more difficult for inmates to move from higher-security to lower-security facilities, the Auditor-General found. That's an important consideration because inmates are more likely to be granted parole after they have transitioned to lower-security facilities.

The report also found problems with regional overcrowding that may not be addressed by the recent expansions. That's because the CSC determined where it would expand prisons based on the land available for new prison cells – rather than on regional needs – which means the growth in prison space did not match regional population projections.

As a result of regional population pressures, the Auditor-General found that prisons will have to continue to put two or more inmates in a cell designed for one. "Even after the construction is completed, CSC officials expect double-bunking to continue," the report states.

In addition to double-bunking in regular cells, the Auditor-General found that some inmates were being crowded into segregation cells and cells smaller than 5 square meters. Overcrowding is a significant concern for staff and inmate safety and the issue has been repeatedly raised by correctional officer unions in recent years.

Many of the expansions were made without regard for the proportion of segregation cells and the need for health-care facilities, even though the CSC had identified a need to improve health facilities in many of the institutions being expanded.

The report also found that cost savings from the closure of the Kingston Penitentiary, Ontario's Regional Treatment Centre and the Leclerc institution in Quebec was not as high as estimated by the CSC. The CSC had said it would save about $120-million per year, while the Auditor-General found that figure to be closer to $86-million.

Mr. Ferguson's report to Parliament also found problems with other departments and programs:

  • The government’s First Nations policing system is not working as intended and some of the police services fail to meet provincial policing legislation and standards.
  • Public-service pension plans, covering public servants, Mounties and the military, are not regularly assessed for sustainability, and prolonged low interest rates, lower-than-expected returns on assets and longer life spans could end up costing taxpayers billions.
  • A government program intended to integrate the way public servants, the military and the RCMP handle transfers and moving costs, did not encourage competition when it sought to issue one large contract to cover everyone.
  • Statistics Canada needs to better address the needs of those outside the federal government who use its data, especially when it comes to job-vacancy data.

With files from The Canadian Press