A rise in "double-bunking" to ease overcrowding could make Canada's prisons more dangerous, said the ombudsman for federal prisoners.

The number of federal inmates forced to share a cell has risen recently to 13 per cent of inmates from 10.7 per cent noted in a department report just last year, according to Corrections Canada, and could rise as high as 30 per cent before new planned facilities are available.

"We've already seen the number of violent incidents inside correctional centres begin to escalate," said Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator, in an interview with CBC News.

mi-sapers-9345163

Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator, says putting two inmates in one cell risks increasing violence in Canada's overcrowded prisons. (Canadian Press)

"We don't know to what extent these security incidents and violent incidents are directly related to double-bunking, but we do suspect that there is a correlation between the extent to which our correctional centres are crowded and the number of these incidents that we're seeing."

Sapers, whose office acts as an ombudsman for federal inmates, was so concerned about double-bunking that he flagged it in his recent annual report.

Eric Gottardi, a Vancouver-based criminal lawyer and a member of the Canadian Bar Association's criminal justice section, is also concerned about double-bunking, saying it can lead to the "Americanization" of Canada's prison system.

"One of my concerns is that we'll slowly march towards the type of crisis that we see in California and other states with these huge mega-prisons," he said. "And they become giant powder kegs where relationships deteriorate to the point where you have to keep them locked up 23 hours a day because to do otherwise would be to throw a match onto a carton of gasoline."

The union that represents guards has concerns for its members' safety.

"Double-bunking is one of the most dangerous things for correctional officers," said Lyle Stewart of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers. "It raises the tensions in institutions where the tension levels are already very high. There's no question that it increases inmate-on-inmate violence, but it also increases the risk when correctional officers open the cell door. Often times that's when an inmate will choose to attack an officer, but now you've got two inmates in there. "

Despite these concerns, the Correctional Services of Canada will rely on the practice even more to deal with the over-crowding caused by the country's tougher crime laws, especially the so-called Truth in Sentencing Act. According to an internal document entitled "Infrastructure Renewal: Frequently Asked Questions,"  the correctional service is "conducting on-site investigations to determine the requirements for double-bunking and other short-term measures."

Correctional Services spokesperson Lori Pothier stresses the short-term nature of the initiatives to deal with the influx of inmates.

"In the medium term we are constructing additional living units at institutions across the country. That's going to give us 2,700 more bed spaces. Until those are built, we're going to rely more on double-bunking."

Inmate compatibility considered

Pothier said the correctional service has relied on doubling up inmates in one cell for many years.

Although the ideal is one inmate per cell, institutions have the flexibility to put two inmates in one cell when the situation warrants, as long as officials conduct a proper risk assessment to take into account factors such as the compatibility of the inmates.

Sapers has concerns about these assessments, pointing out that many are done poorly.

"These are not detailed and long reviews. In some cases, they're cursory reviews. But even at that, we're seeing that they're not being done at all, or they're being done so superficially that they might as well not be done."

The case of Jeremy Phillips

Jeremy Phillips was serving a sentence of six years and nine months in B.C.'s Mountain Institution when he was forced to share a cell with notorious serial killer Michael Wayne McGray. Both men objected to sharing a cell, but Phillips was especially afraid and pleaded with officials to move him.

Last November, Jeremy Phillips was found dead in his cell. McGray confessed and was formally charged in May. Now the family is suing Corrections Canada, which denies any wrong-doing in its statement of defence.

Wayne Fraser, Phillips's uncle, said the family is still grieving, especially because his troubled nephew was weeks away from a parole hearing and had talked about turning his life around and working with street youth.

"Everybody's supposed to have a second chance," Fraser told CBC News. "When they get to prison, they don't expect to die there. And in this case, Jeremy died there. He was double-bunked with this individual. As far as we're concerned, as a family, he was given the death sentence. It's very plain and simple."

'Short-term measure'

Although the Phillips death may be considered an extreme case, critics say it could be a sign of things to come if overcrowding becomes even worse.

Pothier said the increase in double-bunking is a short-term solution to deal with overcrowding while the new cells are being built over the next two-and-a-half years.

But she concedes that penitentiaries will always need to rely on double-bunking, which leads critics to suggest that the measure isn't as short-term as internal documents suggest.

"My concern is that it's going to become a long-term solution. It's going to become the status quo," said Eric Gottardi.

If you have any information about this story you'd like to share, please feel free to contact David McKie at david_mckie@cbc.ca