As the Harper government rolled out plans Wednesday to build new cells at six federal penitentiaries, prison guards took to the streets to protest wage clawbacks and warn that new laws to incarcerate more offenders will make prisons more crowded and dangerous.
The Conservatives said Wednesday they will spend $156 million to build new units at three prisons in Ontario and three more in Quebec, adding almost 500 beds to the system.
“We want to emphasize that our government is prepared to take the necessary steps to keep dangerous criminals behind bars,” said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
The latest prison-building blueprint followed a string of announcements in August, when senior Conservative MPs fanned out to detail plans to spend $105 million on 600 new cells at three prisons in Western Canada and one in Nova Scotia as part of a major building spree to cope with an anticipated influx of prisoners.
While Toews outlined his expansion plans in Kingston, Ont., correctional officers gathered in downtown Ottawa to protest troubled contract negotiations with the government.
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers said it filed a suit in Federal Court on Wednesday, challenging the government’s “unilateral reduction of a negotiated salary increase during the last year of its collective agreement, which expired May 31.”
The guards said they work in increasingly dangerous conditions and they warned the government’s prison-sentencing proposals will make matters worse.
“Given all the government’s tough-on-crime legislation, correctional officers are being asked to do a lot more, and work in a lot more dangerous conditions, with far more double-bunking given the increase in inmate population,” said union spokesman Lyle Stewart.
“So we’re saying, look, we’re prepared to assume that job, but we want some respect at the negotiating table.”
The workers also said they have been stonewalled by Toews in their efforts to meet with him. They want to be consulted on new prison design, saying they are in a position to know what is needed to make institutions work better.
The correctional officers warned that an influx of prisoners, without accompanying programs and services, poses a safety threat.
“We’re the ones that have to take care of them 24/7,” said Kevin Grabowsky, the union’s Prairies president.
“And when you have inmates having idle time, that’s when you start having problems. They start making weapons. There are so many different things that they start doing. They start causing more problems. It’s a real, real safety concern for us.”
The union’s concerns have been echoed by federal prison ombudsman Howard Sapers, who said last month that penitentiaries are ill-equipped to deal with an anticipated surge in inmates, and existing problems of overcrowding and violence will only get worse.
The government plans to build 2,700 new spots within three years, according to the Correctional Service of Canada, which anticipates an increase of 3,400 prisoners as a result of one piece of legislation alone — the Truth in Sentencing Act.
The legislation, which came into force last February, ends the two-for-one sentencing credit for time already served in custody.
The prison service projects that the new law will increase the prison population by about 25 per cent.
There are currently almost 14,000 federal prisoners serving sentences of two years or more in 57 federal penitentiaries.
The prison system also plans to increase double bunking and the federal government has left the door open to building new prisons if necessary. A Correctional Service spokesperson could not be reached for comment Wednesday to address correctional officers’ concerns.
Mark Holland, the Liberal public-safety critic, said the government’s prison-sentencing agenda is reckless.
“We’re chasing California, we’re chasing a disaster,” he told reporters Wednesday.
“Let’s look at what happened there, where budgets soared for prisons and it led to less safe societies. It created essentially crime factories where these prisons became so over-bloated that there was no money for programming and it made California much less safe. We’re charging after that model at a time when we have a record-high deficit.”
Other Tory promises that would increase the number of federal prisoners include imposing mandatory incarceration for drug-related crimes, curtailing the use of conditional sentences, and ending automatic statutory release after serving two-thirds of a sentence.
Toews previously said he has an idea of the overall cost to the prison system but that he does not want to share it. He reaffirmed Wednesday that the Truth in Sentencing Act is expected to cost an additional $2 billion over five years.
The prison expansions announced Wednesday will take place at Bath, Collins Bay, and Millhaven institutions in Ontario and Federal Training Centre, Montee St-Francois, and Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines institutions in Quebec.
– Article from The Vancouver Sun.