Debating the Crime Bill? Fix the Prisons First

It’s a common occurrence for staff to receive threats from inmates.  This year I’ve received seven threats, all documented appropriately…. My facility is like 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag.  Inmates are sleeping on filthy mattresses on filthy floors because of the lack of space, and the health care is atrocious. Men with problems such as an abscessed tooth can wait 3 or 4 weeks for dental treatment, and men with open wounds are living in filthy conditions, which lead to constant infections.  And even when people do see a doctor or dentist, there is little follow-up. The inmates are treated like animals, in conditions that I would not be able to tolerate myself.

British Columbia Correctional Officer, November, 2011

In August of 2010 the Correctional Service of Canada issued a Commissioner’s Directive on Inmate Accommodation, mandating increases in the double bunking of  federal inmates. The Directive noted that the passage of The Tackling Violent Crime Act and The Truth in Sentencing Act were exerting pressure on current prison capacities and that “Even with proposed accommodation identified in CSC’s annual plans, the Service will be forced to increase the level of double bunking”.

The Directive also noted that “double bunking (one cell designed for one inmate occupied by two) is inappropriate as a permanent accommodation measure within the context of good corrections”.

By now, most informed Canadians know about the crime bill, poised to pass into law in the very near future, given a Conservative majority in the House of Commons. We know that crime has been decreasing since the 1990s, but that under the Harper Conservatives imprisonment has been increasing. The new bill aims to send new categories of non-violent criminals to jail: most notably, those previously sentenced to conditional terms of imprisonment; marijuana cultivators; and user-dealers of other illicit drugs (often individuals with a complex web of mental health and substance abuse issues). But let’s put aside the obvious – and justifiable – critique of the legislation:  that it’s expensive, unnecessary and not at all focussed on violent crime.

What’s even more appalling is that this dramatic increase in prisoners is being imposed upon the current state of Canada’s prisons. Double bunking is now routine, federally and provincially, with adverse impacts on the safety of both inmates and correctional officers. At Stony Mountain prison in Manitoba and Mission Institution in B.C., matters are even worse: segregated inmates are sharing cells, a situation described by the Office of the Correctional Investigator as “a violation of government policy, the Charter of Rights, and international human rights standards”.

Put differently, we haven’t begun to see the impacts of the omnibus crime bill, and we are already in serious trouble. In British Columbia inmate to staff ratios in provincial corrections have doubled over the last decade, and both assaults against staff and inmate on inmate assaults have escalated dramatically; the Office of the Correctional Investigator for Canada has noted a similar escalation of violence in federal facilities. The B.C. government has announced plans to build a new correctional centre, but it appears unlikely that the construction of that prison will even come close to keeping pace with the increases in imprisonment that the crime bill will produce.

Perhaps the intent of the Conservative crime bill is to imprison a greater percentage of Canadians convicted of criminal offences, and to impose a more harsh and difficult regime of imprisonment upon them. The logic may be that if imprisonment is nasty and brutish, those imprisoned will be less likely to return.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that being treated badly in prison will decrease the likelihood of an individual committing further crimes after release. In fact, the evidence suggests the contrary. Tragically, there is already very little room in Canada’s prison systems for any focus on rehabilitation — on assisting the re-integration of offenders into the community. The crime bill can only serve to impose greater stresses on such possibilities.

As matters stand now, both provincial and federal prisons have significant percentages of mentally disordered offenders behind their walls, individuals easily victimized by other inmates and inappropriately housed in these settings. Double-bunking continues to increase, and assaults against both officers and inmates continue to rise. The Conservative government is intent upon increasing inmate populations in both federal and provincial correctional centres. It is particularly tragic that, if only by neglect, they are willing to risk the health and safety of both correctional officers and inmates in order to accomplish their goals.

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