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