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As Canada moves toward the fulfilment of the Conservative government's crime agenda, federal prison conditions are deteriorating, with more crowding, more mental illness, more lockdowns and more violence, according to Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers, an ombudsman for federal prisoners.

In just the last 18 months, the federal prison population has risen by 1,000, to 14,500, because of the introduction of new mandatory minimum sentences, changes to parole laws and the end of two-for-one credit for time served before trial. A typical medium-security jail has 500 to 600 prisoners, and a maximum-security jail has 300, so the increase is roughly equal to the creation of two or three penitentiaries, without any new jails being built yet. "It's leading to more institutional violence," Mr. Sapers says, including more deaths in custody and more use of force by jail guards.

Why should Canadians care? Because most prisoners will be released some day, and providing educational or therapeutic programs may improve their odds of a successful reintegration into society, some day; because the average cost to taxpayers for a federal prisoner is $110,000 a year, and that should buy something useful; and because Ottawa is intent on spending billions of dollars each year over and above what it spends now, as it introduces laws that will send more Canadians to jail and keep them there longer. This comes at a time when most government programs are being held steady or cut.

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And, above all of that, a humane society should treat everyone, including prisoners, with humanity.

The federal prison system is struggling to accommodate the new demands placed on it. "Canadian penitentiaries are not designed to be, nor are they, pleasant places," Mr. Sapers says. "But right now, they are probably more crowded, more tense and in some ways even a little more chaotic than they have been in recent memory."

On the bright side, the Correctional Service of Canada has made improving mental-health supports a core priority. Even so, a large number of nursing and psychologists' jobs remain unfilled. As new jails are built, the crowding may be alleviated, but Canadians will have to ask themselves if there's a net public benefit to it all. For now, the jails are under duress, and Parliament and Canadians generally should be aware of the hidden, human costs of adding to the prison population.

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