Stephen Harper's tough-on-crime agenda linked to increasingly dangerous prisons

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In federal prisons across Canada, inmates are at a greater risk of violence than they were 10 years ago.

As the Straight reported in July, statistics obtained through a freedom of information request show numbers are up for assault, sexual assault, and attempted suicide. The use of solitary confinement has also increased.

According Gord Robertson, Pacific regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, it’s a combination of factors that’s causing prisons to become increasingly dangerous places.

“The Corrections [Correctional Service Canada (CSC)] budget has been slashed in the last few years by the Conservatives,” he said in a telephone interview. “Across the country, we need more funding from the government, just to cover things like mental health, to address double bunking, and to alleviate some of those stressors.”

In addition, Robertson stressed that prison staff are struggling with Stephen Harper’s tough-on-crime agenda.

“We’re hit on both sides,” he said. “We realize that they have their tough-on-crime agenda….But it’s not just tough on crime, it’s tough on society. That’s what I think they forget: there is collateral damage when you start just locking people up.”

Robertson repeatedly emphasized the extent to which overcrowding is likely playing a role in the upswing in violence.

“Obviously, the more people you put into a small area, you’re going to have more problems,” he said. “With the changes to the budget for Corrections, there’s more double-bunking, which then correlates into more violence.”

Robertson noted that overcrowding isn’t as bad in B.C. penitentiaries as it is in Prairies region and Ontario facilities, but he maintained it’s an issue across the country.

Government aware of the problem

A more detailed picture of the overcrowding problem for which Robertson expressed concerns is outlined in the “2014 Spring Report of the Auditor General of Canada” (published in May).

That report states that as of March 2013, maximum-security facilities across Canada had 444 more offenders in their custody than there were single beds, that medium-security prisons were 493 inmates over capacity, that minimum-security facilities had 166 more prisoners than single bunks, and that specialized units (defined as multi-level security facilities) were 251 inmates over capacity.

Authorities were aware that double-bunking was causing problems as far back as 2009, the report notes.

“CSC identified serious implications with double bunking, including increased levels of tension, aggression, and violence,” it states.

According to the auditor general’s report, a relatively sharp rise in Canada’s inmate population is the result of legislation introduced by Harper’s Conservative government.

“In 2009, CSC anticipated that changes in criminal justice legislation would result in longer sentences for many offenders, leading to an increased offender population,” it reads. “These legislative changes, enacted since 2008, included mandatory minimum sentences, the elimination of accelerated parole review, and limits on the credit given for pre-sentence custody. CSC analysis found that it did not have sufficient space to accommodate the expected increases without a risk of overcrowding in its institutions.”

Working with the mentally ill

One of the more troubling indicators included in the package of statistics the Straight reported on in June is inmate suicide attempts.

While the number of suicides that occur in prisons each year has remained fairly constant, at an average of nine, attempted suicides have risen dramatically, from 35 in 2003-04, to an all-time high of 113 in 2012-13.

Echoing a September 2013 statement made by Vancouver police chief Jim Chu, Robertson said that Canada’s prison guards have become frontline workers dealing with the country’s mentally ill.

He praised prison staff for keeping the number of annual inmate suicides steady over a period when suicide attempts have risen so dramatically.

“Suicide attempts or self-harm is occurring, and luckily our officers do a fantastic job of intervening and stopping those from turning into suicides,” he said.

At the same time, Robertson argued it’s less than ideal to be housing people with a mental illness in jail cells.

“Prisons aren’t really the place to deal with that,” he said. “We do the best with the resources that we have. But getting those resources in a tight fiscal climate is difficult.”

A need for positive engagement

Correctional Services Canada refused to grant the Straight an interview, as it has every time that one has been requested.

Howard Sapers, head of Canada’s Office of the Correctional Investigator, told the Straight that his department has long called for improvements in the way CSC handles inmates with mental-health challenges. (See “Mentally ill inmates increasingly held in solitary confinement”, published March 6, 2014.)

In a telephone interview, he said his office—which acts as an independent ombudsman—has also requested CSC address over-crowding and bring an end to double-bunking prisoners in cells only designed for one person.

“We’ve reported, for the last number of years, that prisons are becoming more violent places,” Sapers noted. “The Correctional Service of Canada is concerned about these trends. Unfortunately, their response is to do more of what they’ve done in the past; that is, increasingly rely on security, on emergency response, and on the use of segregation.”

To minimize violence, Sapers suggested that guards should primarly be engaging with inmates under guidelines outlined in a policy termed “dynamic security”.

“Correctional officers are supposed to be moving freely within units and interacting with inmates,” he explained. “But in practice, we’re seeing more and more correctional officers doing their work behind protective barriers and relying instead on static security.”

Sapers acknowledged that another likely reason prisons have become more dangerous places is because the mix of inmates has shifted over the years to include more violent offenders. But he argued that correctional staff still need to be working to promote positive engagements.

“We know that dynamic security, when it’s practised properly, it results in much safer institutions for both staff and inmates,” Sapers said.

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kootenaygirl

Aug 23, 2014 at 9:49am

An excellent but disturbing story. I hope it appears in the print edition next week.

K. McIntosh

Aug 23, 2014 at 10:18am

Are you kidding me? This article actually made me facepalm. Just what the devil did you THINK prisons were?? Mr. Dressup's trunk filled with feather boas and sparkly slippers? Tea parties with tiny cakes and finger sandwiches? Good grief, I'm having a hard time believing this article made it to the media. Prisons are for CRIMINALS. Bad people who do BAD things! They should be overstaffed, surrounded and maintained by ARMED men who believe in the law, the justice system and protecting the innocent. Take away the rights to a free education, where inmates become lawyers, and give that free education to a deserving child. Take away the tennis courts, swimming pools, televisions, computers and everything else that ANYONE feels they deserve to keep them calm. Prison isn't about the criminals rights. They chose to forgo those when they broke the law and prison is PUNISHMENT for their actions. I've had it with the lax penalties, the slaps on the wrist, the "three times before you're out" ways of Canada. Who cares how old they are? Build another prison for those under legal age. Ever hear of "Scared Straight"?? It works. Treat a criminal LIKE A CRIMINAL! Then, and only then, will we put reins on the lawbreakers that make us afraid to walk down the streets in broad daylight and hide in our homes at night. Do we have to become Texans?

The right to be safe on the streets.

Aug 23, 2014 at 12:33pm

Convicts with high recidivism rates are not going to "straighten up and fly right." There is no reason why the civilized, (mostly- lol) well behaved public should be exposed to the risk of further murders, rapes and brutal beatings we get from these people is intolerable.

Putting the rest of us at risk so these animals who CONSISTENTLY exercise their freedom of choice to murder, rape, maim and cripple people (from their violence) is wrong. The safety of those of us in society comes first- that is one of the rewards of being a peaceful member OF society.

Convicts ( and here; I mean- murderers/ violent offenders/ fraudsters- white collar criminals) who destroy INNOCENTS lives- people who were going about their peaceful daily lives- before a criminal decided to destroy them because they wanted something need to be stopped. When they get out from prison; they continue where they left off. Freedom comes with responsibilities- use them instead to consistently destroy peoples lives and you deserve to LOSE your Freedom- permanently.

Break the cycle; repeat offenders won't change; they are write offs- bring back Capital punishment for the crimes listed here.

blah

Aug 23, 2014 at 3:23pm

What a bunch of lame, left wing, rose colored glasses bull. Dangerous criminals are the cause of dangerous prisons.

Prisons

Aug 23, 2014 at 4:20pm

@The right to be safe on the streets.
@K. McIntosh

You describe medieval prisons. People "on the streets" were not any safer then than they are now.

Crime rates are correlated to poverty levels (e.g. see http://www.academia.edu/4757612/The_Statistical_Correlation_between_Crim...). If society was really interested in fighting crime it would be fighting poverty. Instead clowns like Harper seem to think that filling prisons is the answer. Filling prisons only breeds more crime.

As for capital punishment, it has also been shown that capital punishment does not reduce violent crime (e.g. see http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/deterrence-states-without-death-penalty-...). Capital punishment is simply murder, especially when innocent people are put to death for crimes they did not commit. And many innocent people find their way into prison. Our legal system is less than perfect in determining guilt.

Eric

Aug 23, 2014 at 4:45pm

@blah, what "left-wing bull"?

The story's sources are the Union of Correctional Officers and the Office of the Governor General of Canada.

How much more right-wing establishment can you get?

Scott Jargen

Aug 23, 2014 at 6:33pm

Women need to be protected from dangerous sex offenders. Rape culture is prevalent on campuses and male students are known to have seduced and raped their female teachers, with the school boards taking the blame of the horrible behaviour of Canadian men. The age of consent is in dire need to being raised to at least 21 years to protect our women from predatory behaviour of males. Justice Minister MacKay should look into the age of consent laws after taking care of preventing human trafficking in Canada

5 27 Rating: -22

john

Aug 23, 2014 at 8:25pm

This recidivism card is so easily played, like mom and apple pie. It appeals to the masses (actually, me too- IF we're talking recidivism.)
The problem is that prisons AREN'T full of repeat offenders. Certainly there's lots of them in there. Not much sympathy for them. Actually, I'm not a real sympathizer for most anyone that winds up in the bucket.
But, the majority of those locked up are first-timers, so whether you like it or not, at some point they're gonna get out of jail. And in the interests of self-preservation, so to speak, we're better off at letting people back onto the streets that the prison system hasn't turned into animals.

18 9 Rating: +9

Tainted Ideology Studies

Aug 23, 2014 at 8:38pm

@Prisons-

Take a look at China- when penalties are swift and sure WHEN a crime has been committed; and people KNOW they will PAY for it...they don't DO IT.

Lee L

Aug 23, 2014 at 11:47pm

"crime rates are correlated to poverty levels".
and
having a prison address is correlated to having committed a violent crime.

9 17 Rating: -8
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