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Watchdog frets over fate of inmates at prisons on Tory chopping block

The main entrance to the Kingston Penitentiary, Canada's oldest prison, is shown on Oct. 21, 2010.

Lars Hagberg/Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

The man who fields complaints from federal inmates will be glad to see the end of the Kingston Penitentiary. But Howard Sapers says there are not yet enough cells to accommodate all of the prisoners who will be displaced by the closure of that facility and two others.

"Closing the institution is probably a good thing," the federal Correctional Investigator said in a telephone interview Thursday. "But the real issue is the process of closing [the prisons]and the transition planning and the time frame."

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced early Thursday afternoon that the 177-year-old institution in Kingston, which houses some of the worst offenders in Canada, would be shut down along with the Ontario Regional Treatment Centre – an acute-care mental health facility for convicts that lies within the walls of Kingston Penitentiary – and the Leclerc Institution in Laval, Quebec.

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There are parts of Kingston Penitentiary that are relics from the past and the institution is a "far from optimal" place to house offenders, Mr. Sapers said. So "is closing Kingston Penitentiary a good thing? I would say yes, I am not sorry to see the doors close on that old place."

But the Conservative government's decision to shut down the three institutions will mean the transfer of roughly 900 inmates to other cells within the corrections system, Mr. Sapers added. And although the federal government has said it will pay for the construction of 2,700 cells, and had actually committed to building 2,400 cells over the next number of years, just a handful of those new cells have been opened.

"The service does not have the capacity right now," he said. "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. It will probably continue to grow."

In addition, the three facilities on the chopping block house very different populations. The Quebec prison is a medium-security institution, the Kingston Penitentiary is maximum security and the treatment centre is for the mentally ill. "You can't just simply pack up their stuff in a U-Haul and move them down the road," the corrections investigator said.

The Millhaven Institution, which is also in the Kingston area, is the only other maximum-security federal prison in Ontario and does not have the 330 beds that would be needed to house the population of the Kingston Penitentiary, he said

And the regional treatment centre, which underwent extensive renovations as recently as the 1990s, is the only facility of its kind in the province, Mr. Sapers added.

"It has the most acutely mentally disordered offenders in the system housed within it," he said. Its 150 inmates have diseases like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other psychotic illnesses and they need ongoing mental-health care.

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As the Correctional Service of Canada scrambles to find new accommodation for all of the displaced inmates, he said, the convicts will be concerned about being transferred to another region far away from their families and sources of support.

"Will the inmates in Quebec stay within the Quebec region, which will assist them in terms of their re-entry plans, will assist them in terms of maintaining family contacts, etc.?" he asked. "Will the offenders who are currently in Kingston continue to be held within the Kingston valley?"

For all of those reason, Mr. Sapers said, the real question is: "Close it and then do what?"

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