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A view of the Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

The Kingston Penitentiary opened in 1835, three years before the coronation of Queen Victoria, and 24 years before Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Its closing, announced by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews on Thursday, is an unmitigated good. Canada can be "tough on crime," or whatever the latest buzz phrase is, without being medieval.

But neither the planned closing, nor Mr. Toews's statement on the occasion, is reason to believe Canada's prison population is growing at anything but a fast pace – fast in itself, and especially fast considering the dropping crime rates.

Mr. Toews said the prison population has been growing much less than anticipated by his own department, in its internal estimates. But that isn't saying much. The department planned for the worst case. What actually happened is bad enough.

In the past two years, Canada's federal prison population (those sentenced to two years or longer) has grown nearly 9 per cent – to an average daily count in March of 14,916, according to Correctional Services Canada. In 2009-10, there were just 13,531 federal prisoners. In 2005-06, there were just 12,671 federal prisoners. So while Canada is closing down three institutions with a total of 1,000 beds, including Kingston and a related acute-care treatment centre with 150 beds, it is spending $600-million to build an extra 2,700 cells at another 33 facilities – the rough equivalent of five new penitentiaries. And each extra inmate costs an average of about $120,000 annually. Absurdly, the jails are a growth industry, at a time when the economy itself is advancing slowly, and when most government programs are under tight constraints.

Kingston Pen or no Kingston Pen, this is a government willing to open the vaults to lock people away – corrections spending went from $1,870,033 in 2007-08, to $2,174,195 in 2008-09, to $2,204,517 in 2009-10, to $2,460,249 in 2010-11 (an 11.6-per-cent increase from the year before) and $2,981,857 (up 21.2 per cent) in 2011-12, before being slated to fall back to $2,763,294 in 2012-13.

The inmate population will continue to grow, thanks to new laws that limit the use of house arrest and set out mandatory-minimum sentences, such as six months for the not-jail-worthy crime of growing six marijuana plants. So, goodbye, Kingston Pen, relic of another day – just like the current jails expansion.

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