Canada’s federal prisons are increasingly dangerous places.
By several measures, including assault, sexual assault, and attempted suicide, inmates are more likely to incur harm than they were 10 years ago, statistics obtained by the Straight reveal.
In a phone interview from Ottawa, Howard Sapers, Canada’s correctional investigator, emphasized that a disproportionate number of affected inmates suffer from mental-health conditions.
“We’ve reported, for the last number of years, that prisons are becoming more violent,” Sapers said. “Correctional Service Canada [CSC] 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 [solitary confinement].”
Sapers, who acts as ombudsman for federal offenders, was discussing documents obtained by the Straight from CSC via a freedom-of-information request. The files present annual statistics going back 10 years covering a range of threats faced by inmates. In four of five categories for which data was provided, incidence rates outpace the rate at which the country’s prison population has grown.
Assaults rose from 452 in 2003-04 to a high of 724 in 2011-12 before dropping back down to 636 in 2012-13.
Sexual assaults climbed from three in 2003-04 to a high of 15 in 2010-11 and then declined to eight in 2012-13.
(Sapers noted that numbers for assault—especially sexual assault—are likely greater than statistics indicate. “Inmates tend to try to sort things out amongst themselves instead of involving the authorities in disputes,” he said.)
Suicides have remained fairly constant, at an average of nine per year. However, attempted suicides have risen dramatically, from 35 in 2003-04 to an all-time high of 113 in 2012-13.
The use of solitary confinement has also increased. The documents provided to the Straight excluded admissions for disciplinary reasons but show a rise from 7,137 admissions in 2003-04 to 8,221 in 2012-13.
According to Sapers, his office has observed spikes in indicators not described in these statistics. For example, guards are using pepper spray more often and placing more calls for emergency-response teams.
At the same time, Sapers continued, numbers are down for some positive indicators, such as enrollment in vocational-training programs and rates for institutional employment.
Correctional Service Canada refused to grant an interview.
Jennifer Metcalfe is the executive director of the West Coast Prison Justice Society, which offers legal aid to people incarcerated in B.C. She told the Straight that CSC is failing inmates with mental-health conditions.
“CSC has been aware of this for a number of years,” she said. “They have made some feeble attempts to deal with people with mental disabilities, but they haven’t been successful and they haven’t pursued them enough.”
Citing just one example, Metcalfe pointed to the “complex needs program” for self-harming inmates, which ran at the Pacific Institution’s Regional Treatment Centre near Abbotsford from 2010 to 2013. “They cancelled the program and didn’t replace it with anything,” she recalled. “And then there have been a lot of studies with recommendations that just haven’t been implemented.”
Metcalfe called special attention to the rate at which suicide attempts have increased. “You don’t want to have a system where people are driven to the point where they are trying to kill themselves,” she said.
Sapers similarly described the rise in attempted suicides as a “very troubling indicator”, noting that a disproportionate number of inmates who self-harm have mental-health conditions. “That population of offenders needs to be dealt with perhaps in a different way than the general population,” he said.
Despite CSC media-relations officer Jon Schofield’s emailed assurance that the agency has implemented a “comprehensive mental health strategy”, Sapers described an overreliance on brute force and solitary confinement. He also noted that his office has repeatedly called for better training for staff that allows them to respond to inmates with mental-health conditions in ways that de-escalate situations and provide access to health care.
Metcalfe suggested these inmates be removed from prisons’ general populations.
“If there is one thing that I think the CSC should implement right away, it should be intermediate mental-health units at all institutions,” she said.