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Gatineau Police surround the outside of the Hull jail in Gatineau, Que. The jail was locked down when inmates barricaded themselves in the maximum-security wing. Sixteen inmates refused to return to their cells.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Double-bunking prisoners is not only expensive, it is risky. When inmates share cells, violence between inmates increases. This threatens the safety of guards, and ultimately endangers society by making it more difficult to rehabilitate offenders.

That's why a new directive from the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada is so troubling. It has deleted the principle that "single occupancy accommodation" is the most desirable and correctionally appropriate way to house offenders.

The directive also increases the cap on the number of prisoners who should be double-bunked to 20 per cent from 10 per cent. In reality, as many as half of all cells are used for double-bunking in many federal penitentiaries in the Prairies and some in Ontario, including segregation cells (which you'd think would defeat the purpose).

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Double-bunking doesn't just mean that sleeping capacity in a penitentiary is taxed; it also signifies that vocational opportunities, health services, support and family visits for prisoners are under stress. "Without access to programs, prisoners won't make progress and that ends up costing society more and harming society," said Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada. "That creates a downward spiral."

The situation has the potential to only get worse, as the impact of Bill C-10, the Conservatives' omnibus crime bill, which rolled out mandatory minimums, including a six-month prison term for those convicted of growing six marijuana plants, is felt. Other legislation that reduces credit for pre-trial custody and makes it more difficult to get parole is also resulting in larger prison populations.

In an era of fiscal restraint, federal spending for prisoner accommodation is a growth area. Ottawa is building 2,700 more cells at a one-off cost of $630-million. Add this to the average annual cost of housing a federal offender: $113,000, compared with $29,500 for community supervision.

The problem of double-bunking has been created by Ottawa's own policies. One way or another, we will all be sharing the costs.

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