Canada’s Bad Prison Situation Is About To Get Worse

Damage from a prison disturbance in British Columbia, photo by Peter BattistoniDamage from a prison disturbance in British Columbia, photo by Peter BattistoniThe extraordinary thing about the federal Conservatives is not their counterproductive approach to criminal justice, which involves putting more and more people in jail for longer and longer periods of time. No, the extraordinary thing is that Conservatives have somehow convinced a good number of people that this ill-advised strategy will make Canadians safer, when in reality it will do just the opposite.
After all, it doesn’t take an expert to tell you that dramatically increasing the stresses on a system that can’t handle current pressures is a recipe for disaster. And as two recent reports detail, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is experiencing significant difficulty coping with the pressures the current crop of federal inmates is placing on the system. The two reports — from federal correctional investigator Howard Sapers and the Correctional Service of Canada review panel — reveal a system in crisis, with a crumbling infrastructure and a staff that is expected to do more with less, to supervise ever higher needs offenders with dwindling resources and support.

Sapers — whose previous calls to repair the system have by and large fallen on deaf ears — notes, among other things, inadequate treatment for the increasing number of inmates with psychiatric disorders, saying that “[d]espite some short-term funding and a reorganization, little has changed for mentally ill offenders. The level of mental health services has not significantly improved, and front-line institutional staff have yet to receive training to appropriately respond to mental health-related behaviour.”

Sapers also notes the difficulty many inmates have in accessing programming in penitentiaries. In addition to long waiting lists for programs — which help inmates develop employment and life skills, as well as avoid substance abuse — Sapers suggests that the problem is particularly acute for aboriginal and female inmates. Indeed, in one institution for aboriginals, “none of the programs were delivered either at all, or according to schedule, last year.”

Sapers further discusses the epidemic level of blood-borne diseases among the prison population, noting that “inmates are 7 to 10 times more likely than the general Canadian population to be living with HIV and 30 times more likely to have hepatitis C.” Transmission of such diseases occurs largely through injection drug use in prisons, yet Sapers notes that despite CSC efforts to eliminate drugs, use declined by less than one percentage point between 1998-99 and 2006-07. Given the failure to eliminate the problem, Sapers argues that the CSC must emphasize harm reduction programs — something the Conservatives are dead set against — for the safety of both inmates and staff.

The review panel’s report echoes many of these concerns. In particular, it notes that the number of male offenders with mental health problems increased by 71 per cent between 1997 and 2006, and that 12 per cent of male offenders now suffer from psychiatric disorders. The number of female offenders with mental health problems similarly rose 61 per cent during the same period. The situation with respect to addiction is even worse, as the review panel found that an astonishing four out of five federal inmates now suffer from substance abuse problems.

Given this epidemic level of psychiatric and substance abuse disorders, the CSC is understandably overwhelmed. Canada’s prisons are being forced to fill the role once played by psychiatric hospitals and addiction treatment centres, and the result is predictable: The panel’s report notes that the CSC programs aimed at ensuring inmates are employable when they leave prison “have been eclipsed as a priority” by programs addressing “other core needs” such as substance abuse. This has resulted in an increased level of unrest in penitentiaries, which jeopardizes the safety of all inmates. Now, Conservatives might not be concerned about the welfare of inmates — recall Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day’s celebration of jailhouse murder when he advocated placing killer Clifford Olson in the general population so “the moral prisoners will deal with him in a way we don’t have the nerve to do.”

Yet the lack of services in prisons also jeopardizes the safety of prison staff and, ultimately, of all Canadians, because most inmates will eventually be released, and many of them will be in worse shape than when they were first incarcerated. Not surprisingly, then, Conservative reaction to the two reports has been muted, although Day did manage to display his well-developed ability to deny reality when he recently told CBC Radio that any inmate “wanting and asking for a program will get one.” As if that weren’t bad enough, the two reports only detail the current state of Canada’s penitentiaries. Things are about to get much, much worse, thanks to the Conservatives’ efforts to, as they say, “protect Canadian families and communities.”

Two Conservative bills making their way through Parliament — the Tackling Violent Crime Act and Bill C-26, which deals with illicit drugs — will add mandatory sentences to many crimes and therefore increase the prison population exponentially. In particular, Bill C-26, which just passed second reading, will lead to the imprisonment of an unprecedented number of drug addicts and people with mental illness. Although spun by the Conservatives as an attack on drug dealers since it provides for mandatory sentences for drug trafficking, we have abundant evidence that many addicts — particularly the lowest-functioning users, who are often mentally ill — begin dealing as a way to gain income and ensure a steady supply of drugs. Further, these low-level, low-functioning street dealers are the most likely to get caught and be subject to mandatory sentences. High-level dealers, on the other hand, are good at insulating themselves from law enforcement; even if they get caught, they’re typically able bargain their way down to lesser charges because they have valuable information to share with prosecutors.

Evidence from the United States bears this out. The U.S. began implementing mandatory sentences ostensibly targeting drug kingpins in 1986, yet according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission only 11 per cent of federal drug offenders are high-level dealers. Further, according to the U.S. Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, mandatory sentencing regimes — which the U.S. has begun dismantling — increased the number of Americans imprisoned for drug offences from just 38,000 in 1986 to 458,000 in 2000. The total price tag for housing American drug offenders now stands at $9.4 billion.

This is what awaits us. Yet the Conservatives last year promised only $102 million over two years in new prison spending, which isn’t even enough to remedy current defects. Indeed, the Conservatives better be ready to earmark billions more dollars per year to the prison system, in perpetuity, if they wish to follow the U.S. example, which the U.S. itself isn’t even willing to follow any more.

Otherwise, the problems will only get worse: We will see more and more people with serious addiction problems, and more and more mentally ill people who self-medicate with illicit drugs, in jail. And fewer and fewer inmates will be properly prepared for their release into the community, thereby placing us all in jeopardy.

Yet the Conservatives have somehow managed to hoodwink many people into believing that their counterproductive measures protect Canadian families and communities, and that anyone who objects to these measures is uninterested in the safety of Canadians. This is a truly Machiavellian strategy. And it will continue until people rise up and tell the government, in no uncertain terms, that Canadians aren’t as stupid as the Conservatives believe.

– Article from the Vancouver Sun