No Room in the Warehouse: Canada's prison system is growing

Nov 6, 2010

No Room in the Warehouse: Canada's prison system is growing

Overcrowded federal prisons are becoming "warehouses for bodies" that make criminals more likely to re-offend when they are released, according to advocates for the rights of prisoners.

Concerns of academics and social justice activists reverberated in Ottawa yesterday, with the release of a report by Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada and Federal Ombudsman for Prisons.

According to Sapers, conditions inside overcrowded prisons are preventing rehabilitation.

These conditions are leading to more incidents of violence and preventable deaths in custody, and the people hit hardest will be the most vulnerable segments of the population, including those struggling with mental illness, according to Sapers.  

"As a society, we are criminalizing, incarcerating and warehousing the mentally disordered in large and alarming numbers," Sapers wrote.

He noted that Aboriginal people are also vastly overrepresented in the prison population.

The federal government, while pushing for mandatory minimum sentencing, has announced millions of dollars in new money to expand federal prisons.

Critics have responded that an enlarged prison system and severe punishment will make matters worse. 

"The knee-jerk reaction is to build more prisons," said Peggy Chrisovergis, a doctoral student in criminology at the University of Ottawa.

She said that even as crime rates are declining, prison populations expand with the application of severe modes of control and surveillance.

Parole officers can put convicts back in jail based on a condition known as a "lack of transparency." In at least one case, Chrisovergis said, an officer applied this punishment after a convict failed to disclose breaking up with his girlfriend.

"Lack of transparency is used much more now," Chrisovergis said, adding that parole officers have entered into even more intimate territory in some cases.

"Parole officers will call your girlfriend and ask questions like 'how's your sex life?'"

And as prisons fill beyond their capacity, convicts are forced to share cells designed for only one inmate, a condition known as "double-bunking."

Marie Beemans, a longtime advocate for the rights of prisoners, said that double-bunking is leading to more violence behind bars.

She said she doesn't expect riots on the scale of riots of the 1970s, when prisoners took over the Kingston Penitentiary for four days.

But as rates of violence increase among tense prisoners, it becomes harder for them to make their way back into society when they are finally released, she said.

"When they do come out, you're getting people on the street who don't trust, who are on the defensive all the time," she said.

"This is not protecting the public."

Meanwhile, social programs serving those inmates who suffer from mental illnesses are being cut, she added, even as these people find themselves behind bars more and more.

Beemans said the federal government is leveraging the public's fear to support their agenda despite a decade-long drop in crimes reported by police, as measured by Statistics Canada.

The crime rate was 17% lower in 2009 than it was in 1999, according to StatsCan.

As for rates of violence, the Crime Severity Index, which measures the seriousness of police-reported crime, dropped by 22% over the course of the decade.

But despite this measured decline, the Department of Public Safety has been rolling out millions of dollars in new money to accommodate spiking prison populations.

And according to data compiled by Justin Piché, a PhD student in sociology at Carleton University, the budget for the federal penitentiary system is expected to grow massively.

The prison budget, he writes, will likely top $3 billion in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, almost double what the federal Liberal government spent in 2005-2006.

In terms of the expected spike in the incarcerated population, government officials have equivocated.

Piché's blog  points to Bill S-10, which is currently before the Senate.

S-10 would impose "mandatory minimum" sentences on minor drug convictions, effectively tying the arms of judges who could otherwise use discretion when sentencing convicts to time in jam-packed prisons.

CSC Commissioner Don Head said "there isn't enough data" to predict how swollen the prison population will be if S-10 passes. 

The prison boss has floated some numbers around, but they seem likely to change.

Head told a parliamentary committee in October that he will need to spend about $2 billion to deal with nearly 4,500 new prisoners.

But that is already more than 1,000 prisoners beyond his projection in June. 

At that juncture, he estimated there would be 3,400 new prisoners housed with 2,700 new beds.

Double-bunking would take care of other 700. Now, Piché notes, it is unclear what the government intends: more beds or more double-bunking?

He described the government’s approach to crime as a “punishment agenda.”

"The punishment agenda is about not actually meeting the needs of victims, but ... creating additional victims," he said.

"This agenda is justice for none."

Mandatory minimum sentencing has also drawn fire from organizations like the John Howard Society, which provides a number of services to people who run afoul of the law, or who face the risk. 

Don Wadel, Executive Director of Ottawa's John Howard branch, said that mandatory minimums take discretionary power away from judges who know that conditions inside prisons aren't conducive to rehabilitation.

Yet, as the government continues to invest in construction, one may ask what companies will benefit from these projects. And what are some of the alternatives?

One suggestion comes from Giselle Dias, a Toronto-based activist who has been working with prisoners for 17 years. She said she favours the abolition of prisons as a long-term goal.

To Dias, this means rearranging priorities in government spending.

"It's about putting money on the front-end instead of the back-end," Dias said. "Putting money into social programming, affordable housing, putting money into better health care, better education."

Dias also called for a reassessment in the way people think about punishment and healing.

An over-reliance on authority figures to settle disputes starts at childhood, she said. At a young age, children could be learning how to mediate conflict among their peers instead of resorting to the use of force by police. 

"Some kids who have those skills are going to be capable of actually solving problems within our community versus calling in authority figures," she said.

But punishment seems to be the order of the day, as money flows for beefed-up prisons in Canada.