‘Tough on crime’ policies causing a crisis in provincial jails

Overcrowding, violence and mental illness are all on the rise, which means our jails are costing us more without reducing crime

TORONTO (April 30, 2015) — A study by the Public Services Foundation of Canada (PSFC) reveals that the federal government has pushed the country’s network of provincial jails into a state of crisis, with profound consequences not just for inmates and correctional workers, but for each and every Canadian. 

Drawing on federal and provincial statistics, the PSFC’s Crisis in Correctional Services report found that provincial jails from coast to coast are chronically overcrowded, with some facilities being forced to accommodate twice the number of inmates for which they were designed. The direct consequences are threefold:

  • The jails are exacerbating inmates’ addictions and mental illnesses, and amount to cruel and unusual punishment for people who deserve treatment, not incarceration.
  • The jails are becoming more dangerous for inmates and staff.
  • The jails are making inmates more likely to commit other crimes upon release, and are becoming fertile recruiting and training grounds for gangs and other violent criminal organizations.

The indirect consequences are wide-ranging, but boil down to this: our criminal justice system is costing Canadians more public money than it needs to cost, and is doing much less to reduce criminal behaviour than it could be.

The PSFC study says two federal government policy directions are fuelling the overcrowding crisis: 

  • Cutting funds to our mental health care system
  • Pursuing longer sentences for those convicted of a crime

“Our provincial correctional facilities are becoming little more than human warehouses,” says PSFC board member James Clancy. “They’re not reducing criminal behaviour, they’re increasing it. They’re not reducing mental illness, they’re increasing it. And to boot, they’re costing the public purse much more than need be.”

The findings of the PSFC report are no surprise to the correctional officers and other staff working in provincial correctional facilities. By helping to publicize the crisis, they are hoping to increase their own safety and well-being on the job, but also the safety and well-being of their communities.

“The people who work in our provincial jails know their jobs are important,” says OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas, whose union represents nearly 4,000 correctional officers in Ontario. “But they deserve to be safe in their jobs. And they also deserve to know that the work they’re doing is helping people and their communities. With the jails overflowing, they know that right now, their jobs are neither safe nor effective.”

The report lists 15 recommendations for the federal government, including the development with provincial governments of national strategies for both mental health care and corrections.

Some of the specific findings and information in the PSFC report are:

  • British Columbia’s Ministry of Justice estimates that more than half of offenders (56 per cent) admitted into the province’s corrections system have a substance abuse and/or mental health problem.
  • In British Columbia and Saskatchewan, the average provincial correctional facility operates at 140 per cent capacity.
  • In Manitoba and Quebec, the average provincial correctional facility operates at 120 per cent capacity.
  • Provincial governments in Ontario and Nova Scotia have artificially inflated their jails’ capacities through policies of “double-” and even “triple-bunking.”
  • Despite a Correctional Services of Canada report that showed that longer sentences increase recidivism by 7 per cent, the Conservative Party of Canada passed legislation in 2010 to increase the length of sentences for those held in custody during trial.
  • According to a Parliamentary Budget Office report in 2011, the new correctional facilities required because of the federal government’s decision to lengthen sentences could cost the federal government nearly $2 billion, and the provinces $6.2 billion.

The full report is available for download here: http://publicservicesfoundation.ca/content/crisis-correctional-services

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For more information, please contact Andy Pedersen at 613-710-6743 or apedersen@nupge.ca