Monday, December 12, 2011

Canada’s federal prison ombudsman warns omnibus crime bill will exacerbate prison overcrowding, create more ‘complex’ penitentiary populations

PARLIAMENT HILL—Prison policy and tough-on-crime laws under the majority-governing Conservatives have Canada’s federal penitentiaries overcrowded—with prisons for women using treatment and counselling space for cells—and a controversial crime mega-bill the government is forcing through Parliament will only make it worse, the federal prison ombudsman says.

With the government under fire Thursday over its decision to continue pushing legislation through Parliament to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board, despite a court ruling against it, Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers told The Hill Timesthat, despite a similar rush with the crime legislation, Bill C-10, there has been no “roll up” of costing or implications of a range of crime and penal measures the Conservatives have already overseen since 2006.

“There have been a host of regulatory policy and legislative changes that have altered the way corrections is being done in Canada,” Mr. Sapers said in an interview after testifying at the Commons Public Safety and National Security earlier in the week.

“What we’re seeing is we’re seeing more people being sent to penitentiary and typically now staying longer, and perhaps at higher security levels, and so our prisons are becoming more crowded and they’re becoming more crowded with some particular populations,” Mr. Sapers said.

“We’re seeing an increase in the over-representation of aboriginal offenders, we’re seeing a dramatic increase in the rate of incarceration for female offenders, we’re seeing an increase in the number of offenders going to penitentiary with significant mental illness,” he said. “The population is not just increasing, but the populations within penitentiaries are becoming more complex and, in some ways, more difficult to manage and program for.”

The correctional investigator, who has the status of ombudsman for federal offenders, said it will only get worse once Bill C-10 becomes law.

“C-10 as well creates some additional mandatory minimums, some additional changes in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that I think will increase even more the number of people going to penitentiary, and that is going to compound the problem,” Mr. Sapers said.

The government invoked time allocation last Monday to cut short debate and force the crime bill into the Senate, which is already close to passing the Wheat Board bill through committee study. The Senate is also expected to pass prior to its holiday recess the budget implementation bill, which includes controversial measures to end public subsidies for federal political parties, and legislation to give the House of Commons 30 more seats.

Mr. Sapers said government regulatory, policy, and legislative measures to now, including making parole eligibility more difficult to obtain, are likely behind a jump in the federal prison population this year to roughly 14,500 from 13,500 in 2010. He said the government itself has already approved a five-year plan to create 2,500 new prison cells and beef up Correctional Service of Canada staff by 4,000.

Mr. Sapers said the pressure inside prisons and budget limits have already sharply limited access to drug rehabilitation programs and other courses, including basic instruction in literacy, that are supposed to be available to federal inmates.

“I can give you examples, particularly in women’s prisons right across the country, where program space, interview space, office space is being used for housing because those centres are so overcrowded,” Mr. Sapers said.

“What we’re seeing is we’re seeing more people being sent to penitentiary and typically now staying longer, and perhaps at higher security levels, and so our prisons are becoming more crowded and they’re becoming more crowded with some particular populations.”

Opposition MPs said Mr. Saper’s inside glimpse into the boiling point that Canada’s penitentiaries have reached should give the government reason to arrest the crime bill’s rush through Parliament, particularly after separate controversies over the bill eliminating the Wheat Board’s control over grain marketing on behalf of western Canadian farmers and other legislation, Bill C-19, that will dismantle the federal long-gun registry and destroy all its records.

“Overcrowding leads to more violence in the community, more anxiety among prisoners, and less programs being delivered to the prisoners,” NDP MP Jasbir Sandhu (Surrey North, B.C.) told The Hill Times. “It’s very troubling that the prisoners are overcrowded and yet we have new legislation that was rushed through the House, rushed through the committee and even the witnesses at the committee were rushed through.”

Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia (Lac-Saint-Louis, Que.) said testimony at the Commons Public Safety and National Security committee indicates the crowded prison system, and the effect of overcrowding on inmate programs, has led to a sharp increase in drug use and addiction.

“We’ve heard that people come into prison with a minor history of drug use and for sure the stress of being in prison causes them to graduate to stronger drugs,” Mr. Scarpaleggia said. “That’s going to cost more in terms of rehabilitation, and 50 per cent of rehabilitation is not successful so you’ve got people going back out on the street who are addicted to harder drugs, and drug use is linked to crime.”

“It’s hard to really know where we’re headed,” he said.

tnaumetz@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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