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A segregation cell at Joyceville medium security institution in Kingston, Ontario in 2018.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

Justin Ling is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

On the list of issues to be raised in this mad dash of a federal election, it’s perhaps understandable that the state of Canada’s prisons is pretty low. Indigenous people are still waiting for clean drinking water, provinces continue to fight over pipeline projects, climate change alters best-laid plans, and a housing crisis and potential economic recession are leaving urban Canadians nervous.

Amidst all that, why would voters care about the treatment of criminals? Besides, aren’t poor conditions in jails a feature, rather than a bug? The logic has long been that if you don’t want to face that kind of miserable treatment, just don’t commit crimes.

But the conditions of our system reflect a humanitarian crisis lying in wait, laden with systemic rot.

“The Service continues to assume the risk of running prisons without 24/7 health care coverage,” Ivan Zinger, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, wrote last year. The year prior, in his meticulous annual report, he wrote that at one Alberta institution, “I witnessed outdoor segregation ‘yards’ that were actually cages, easily mistaken for a dog run or kennel.” Long-suffering former correctional investigator Howard Sapers filed his last report the year before that, finding that guards were increasingly using force and pepper spray in dealing with inmates who had attempted self-harm or suicide.

Going back through years of these reports is like reading a meticulous and galling laundry list of concerns: poor food quality; wild abuses of solitary confinement; low prison pay and the rising costs of basic essentials; systemic racism; a failure to help inmates with serious mental-health issues; slashed programming due to lack of funding. Many of these problems are only magnified in provincial institutions, which often have to house inmates awaiting trial. The age of the prisons themselves contribute to those outcomes; some are more than 100 years old. “They were built at a time when the correctional philosophy was very different than what it is today,” Mr. Zinger said in an interview.

Lockdowns have become a daily part of life inside these prisons. In Ontario’s Maplehurst prison, lockdowns were ordered, on average, every other day over a two-year period. Those lockdowns limit the inmates’ ability to shower, get clean bedding, see family or lawyers and exercise.

There’s a race problem, too. While the Criminal Code recognizes that the courts should opt for alternatives to imprisonment whenever possible, especially for Indigenous offenders, that has not happened in reality. Nearly a quarter of the prison population is Indigenous, despite being less than 5 per cent of the population. The problem is more acute in the Prairies, where recidivism rates are staggering. “It is at a crisis point, right now,” Mr. Zinger says. A lack of co-operation with Indigenous peoples, and a lack of culturally informed programming, has made reintegration hard and the problem worse.

One of the more obscene examples of Correctional Services Canada’s (CSC) practices has been solitary confinement. Troublesome or at-risk inmates – especially former cops, informants and those suffering from mental illness – are thrown in a tiny, one-person cell, for long stretches of time. Inmates are allowed just one hour of outside time and one hour of human contact a day. Sometimes, they don’t even get that. That practice fits the United Nations definition of torture.

But perhaps that’s still not enough to shake you. After all, it was in the 2011 election that hapless Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff made the Harper government’s construction of “U.S.-style megaprisons” a campaign concern; voters seemed actively bored by the suggestion.

There is one thing that all Canadians care about, we’re often told: costs, and the financial ramifications they have on our government and our families. If that’s the case, then you should know this: Our prison systems are also a ticking fiscal time-bomb.

CSC, the federal government’s 15th-largest department or agency by funding, already costs $2.4-billion to run. But that budget has been flat over the past decade, in real dollars. At the same time, staffing numbers have grown. There is now roughly one CSC staff member for every inmate in Canada, Mr. Zinger said, and in many institutions, there are more staff than inmates.

That money has to come from somewhere.

Support services, addictions counselling and job training were the first to go, eliminating useful programs to assist with reintegration and skills development to re-enter the work force. Without that, what happens? “They reoffend,” Edmonton criminal-defence lawyer Tom Engel said. "Surprise, surprise.”

In its defence, Ottawa points to prison labour programs as a primary service by which inmates are being prepared for life outside. But that, too, has been turned into a cost-cutting exercise. Most prisoners with jobs are either hired to perform tasks to help run the prisons, such as cleaning, or to make goods for other government departments, which are then sold for some $60-million a year. Both efforts keep CSC’s costs low, saving them from having to pay outside staff and helping them make back money at the margins.

The maximum salary is $6.90 a day; most earn less. What’s more, up to 30 per cent of that salary is clawed back for, among other things, room and board. Yes, they’re actually paying to be in jail.

Prison labour was also supposed to provide a way to earn money to buy goods that would make prison more bearable, save money for prisoners’ release and send money to their family. Increasingly, that is not the case. Costs at the prison canteens, where prisoners need to buy soap and other basics, have skyrocketed, with some goods costing double what they would outside. Phone calls can be expensive, too. A 60-minute non-local call can cost a day’s wage, which is particularly troubling as most inmates are not imprisoned in their own communities.

As programming and services have declined, conditions inside have gotten worse. And for inmates facing inhumane conditions at the hands of Corrections Canada, Mr. Engel said, “there’s only one route to take: Go to court.”

They’re succeeding. Two challenges in Ontario and British Columbia succeeded in having the courts declare the solitary-confinement system unconstitutional. Lawsuits on behalf of mentally ill prisoners who were thrown in solitary confinement, and those who were placed in the tiny cells for longer than 15 days at a time, both succeeded: The courts ordered Ottawa to pay $20-million in damages in both cases. And two inmates from Maplehurst sued for a breach of their Charter rights and won; the court awarded the pair tens of thousands of dollars in damages. While an appeals court later reversed their compensation, more applications of that type are all but certain to come in the future.

After being told by the courts to end solitary confinement, and after seeking multiple extensions to that ruling while it dragged its feet on a solution, the Trudeau government’s answer was to convert the solitary confinement wings to “segregated intervention units,” at a cost of about $50-million a year. Under this new system, there will be no cap on the length of stay in these units, and it only increases inmates’ time outside their cell to four hours a day. Critics including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association say the new rules constitute “the bare minimum required to address the Charter violation inherent in the existing scheme," and when the government killed a series of amendments designed to strengthen oversight, experts such as Senator Kim Pate argued that, in failing to fix this process, “we put the onus of going back to court to once again challenge the use of isolation on those directly and negatively impacted by segregation – prisoners.” In short, it is likely that these new rules will be taken to court, and they will be struck down, too.

More legal challenges will come. Those challenges cost huge sums in legal fees, and have already forced Ottawa to pay out millions in compensation to prisoners thus far – and the federal government remains open to limitless liability. In a 1996 report, Justice Louise Arbour even argued that the courts should consider reducing inmate sentences’ based on their treatment in prison.

Once upon a time, Justin Trudeau recognized this. In a mandate letter, he asked the Attorney General and Justice Minister to “end appeals or positions that are not consistent with our commitments, the Charter or our values.”

Ever since, the Trudeau Liberals have been deadly silent on the matter. And Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have put forward farcical policies to address the issue, campaigning on revoking parole for “gang members” and implementing new mandatory minimum sentences.

Other parties are better. The NDP platform commits to reducing the overrepresentation of Indigenous and black offenders. The Greens have called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences. Only the Greens have pledged money to improve services in prisons.

This needs to be a campaign issue. Prison conditions have become abject – dissonant from what we expect of ourselves, in our image as Canadians – and fixing that will cost money. But investment now, as well as work to reduce the prison population – namely, by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and expanding supervised community programs – will vastly reduce prison costs, keep people in their communities and save Ottawa from costly legal challenges in the future.

Government after government has been warned about this looming disaster, but because it’s not a winning electoral issue, addressing it has become an even more urgent priority today. “Something’s got to change,” Mr. Zinger warns. “Something bold has got to be done.” And yet good luck finding a party that will give voice to this simmering crisis. That’s a lose-lose situation for Canadians, both free and incarcerated.

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