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The federal government announced in 2012 that it would shut down Kingston Penitentiary.KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/The Globe and Mail

As it continues to champion its tough-on-crime agenda, the Conservative government faces a critical challenge in housing inmates – more than $1-billion worth of federal prison infrastructure is in poor or critical condition, according to the federal agency in charge of corrections.

The situation presents "imminent" safety concerns, a corrections report says, at a time when prisons are turning to double-bunking and the inmate population is expected to grow. Ottawa has said it wants to extend life sentences and is looking at new mandatory minimums. Both these changes could further exacerbate population pressures. The report is silent on the price of repairing prisons, but says more than 10 per cent of infrastructure is in poor repair, pointing to a significant cost that will add to the bill for the Conservative crime agenda.

Federal prisons that were built in the 1960s and 1970s, "have typically now reached their peak for remedial works, particularly where opportunities for regular maintenance have been limited," the Correctional Service of Canada's 2013-2018 "accommodation plan" says. "The risk and implications of serious failure of physical infrastructure, critical to life safety, security, operations, and occupant health, are both significant and imminent."

Infrastructure that was identified as being in poor or critical condition represents just over $1-billion worth of CSC's total of about $7.3-billion in infrastructure, the report says.

A spokeswoman for the Correctional Service of Canada said a series of new cells will help the agency better manage a complex and diverse population. The CSC is building about 2,750 new cells, which she said should be ready by the end of 2014.

"Once these expansions are complete, CSC will target available resources to maintaining and, where possible, improving the condition of existing infrastructure," Sara Parkes wrote in an e-mail. "CSC has sufficient funds to maintain its aging infrastructure for the foreseeable future in an effective and sustainable manner."

Ms. Parkes added that the CSC plans to return to cabinet in the next two years to look for approval of its post 2017-2018 accommodation plan.

The shutdown of three federal prisons – Kingston Penitentiary, the Ontario Regional Treatment Centre and LeClerc Institution – means prisoners who were housed in those facilities are being moved somewhere else. The CSC accommodation plan, which was written last fall, says there should be an adequate number of overall cells by the end of the 2014-2015 fiscal year, even with those institutions closing.

However, the agency's population projections suggest the system could be above capacity again as early as the 2017-2018 fiscal year. In addition, population pressures are expected to persist even after 2015 in some regions, including reception centres across the country and prisons in Ontario and the Prairies.

Randall Garrison, public safety critic for the NDP, said he's concerned the government is reducing its budget for corrections at a time when the prison population is expanding and double-bunking – where two inmates are held in a cell designed for one – is becoming the norm.

"Double-bunking leads to more violence, it makes it more difficult to manage institutions and it interferes with the rehabilitative work that needs to go on," he said. Mr. Garrison said the system needs better funding, particularly when the federal government is introducing measures that are expected to increase the overall prison population.

The CSC spent about $24-million less in the fiscal year ending in 2013 than it did in 2012, according to the agency's departmental performance reports.

A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said the government is focused on making sure the corrections system "actually corrects" criminal behaviour. "This includes ensuring prisons are safe for our frontline officers. We have closed two outdated prisons and we are moving towards facilities that are safer for correctional officers," Jean-Christophe de Le Rue wrote in an e-mail.