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Prison system needs more planning

Posted on May 21, 2014 by Lethbridge Sun Times

The auditor general’s spring report has taken the federal government to task for shortsighted planning with regard to its revamping of federal penitentiaries.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson said in his report, released Tuesday, that the Correctional Service failed to consider long-term needs in its expansion of prison facilities to accommodate a growing offender population. Consequently, it’s expected that the prison population will once again surpass capacity in just a few years after construction is completed.

Officials are dealing with the situation by continuing the process of double-bunking, but critics say that’s not a satisfactory way to deal with overcrowding. In an editorial in February 2013, the Globe and Mail noted, “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.”

Federal officials can’t say they weren’t warned about the overcrowding problem. Five years ago, when the Harper government was touting its tough-on-crime approach, federal correctional investigator Howard Sapers said Canada’s prison system was already stretched to the max and adding an influx of inmates would be “dangerous.” Overcrowding, he warned, produces conditions that work against efforts to rehabilitate inmates, instead turning them into more hardened criminals.

“We know historically that the more repressive conditions become inside institutions, the more dangerous conditions become. And that’s for inmates and staff,” Sapers said at the time (in June 2009). The danger doesn’t only involve the risk of violence within prisons, but includes “risk of reoffence upon release,” said Sapers.

Pre-dating Sapers’ warning, in fall 2007, the Correction Service of Canada Review Panel released a report called “A Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety” which highlighted the safety risk because of “antiquated penitentiaries.”

Ferguson’s report noted Correctional Service Canada “developed a five-year accommodation plan to focus on its current expansions to existing institutions, but it did not develop a long-term accommodation plan to deal with its aging infrastructure in a cost-effective manner.”

The report also pointed out that every prison has a rated capacity, “which is generally equal to the number of single cells in operation,” and found that “about half of the institutions in the Ontario and Prairie regions were operating at or above their rated capacities.”

The CSC, in response to Ferguson’s audit, has agreed to draft a long-term accommodation plan by next March. It also intends to undertake an assessment of its prisons to help it prioritize future spending to improve and maintain prison facilities.

Some sort of long-term planning is needed. Without it, the matter of prison overcrowding will only get worse, and along with it the accompanying problems — a less safe prison environment and less rehabilitation of inmates. That’s not an acceptable situation.

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