Canada's prison system is grappling with an explosion of gangs that is fuelling violence and the drug trade behind bars and crime on the street, according to documents obtained by CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

Corrections Canada has seen a 44 per cent jump in gang members in federal prisons in the last five years, to 2,040 in 2012 from 1,421 in 2007, according to the documents obtained under access to information.

The records show a big jump in aboriginal gangs, especially in the Prairies.

The documents say there are 54 different types of gangs now identified in institutions across the country. The biggest spike is in street gangs, which have swelled by 269 per cent since 2000.

Gang members behind bars

  • 44% rise in past five years.
  • 12% of inmates belong to gangs.
  • Street gangs up 269% over 10 years.
  • 54 different gang types.

Source: Corrections Canada, through access request

While many members were affiliated before their incarceration, gangs "aggressively recruit" within the penitentiaries to strengthen their powerbase behind bars.

The correctional service developed a strategic framework for dealing with gangs in 2006, and implemented its gang management strategy in 2008. It aims to encourage inmates to "exit" their affiliation and limit security risks posed by members.

But numbers have continued to climb, with gangs posing a "serious threat to the safe, secure, orderly and efficient management of our operation units," according to one correctional service management document.

It raises a number of concerns, including:

  • Power and control issues through intimidation, extortion and violence.
  • Incompatibilities or rivalries between various individuals and groups.
  • Illicit or illegal activities, such as drug distribution within correctional facilities.
  • Potential for manipulation, intimidation and corruption of staff.
  • Population management pressures.
  • Illicit or illegal activities while on conditional release.

One heavily redacted document from January 2012, about an executive committee conference call on a National Board of Investigation into the murder of an inmate, notes "there is a considerable workload for the security intelligence department which has intensified in the past year with the proliferation of gangs and more complex population dynamics caused by double-bunking."

Double-bunking is the practice of housing two inmates in the same cell.

Some measures taken to combat the gang problem include more training, more intelligence officers, more collaboration with police and justice partners and a prohibition of gang colours and paraphernalia.

Gang rivalries and incompatibility issues also forced Corrections Canada to consider segregating certain gangs, according to the documents. One special unit at Edmonton Institution called STEP (Security Threat Elimination Program) was set up to separate gang members from the general population.

Gangs behind bars by affiliation

Aboriginal: 24%

Motorcycle: 16%

Traditional organized crime: 7%

Street: 43%

Asian: 3%

Other: 6%

Source: Corrections Canada, 2012

One "annex" to the strategy underscores the havoc wreaked by prison gangs: "To understand the impact of the gang problem it is important to note how disruptive [they are] … their activities can affect the smooth running of most medium and maximum security institutions," it reads.

"For instance, a high percentage of prison violence is gang-related, where nearly all ethnic groups are represented. Gangs control the drug trade inside of most institutions, which leads to violent confrontation between gangs trying to enlarge or maintain their customer base.

"Gang members in institutions aggressively recruit and make alliances to strengthen their power base and influence within the prison. Many of CSC's institutional lockdowns are the result of inter-gang violence."

Speaking about the increase on Power and Politics, Candice Bergen, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, said the government’s "tough-on-crime" legislation has taken more gang members off the streets and put them behind bars.

"We have good programs that are in place, but it’s a continual challenge," she told host Evan Solomon. "There is some relief that at least these individuals are not on the street. If they’re going to be involved in illegal activity, it’s better that they’re in prison and we can deal with them in a very controlled setting."

Bergen dismissed any link between overcrowded conditions and double-bunking with violence, gangs and other problems behind bars.

But NDP Public Safety critic Randall Garrison said overcrowding coupled with fewer programs and rehabilitation raises the institutional temperature and fuels gang affiliation.

"There’s that old saying about idle hands and the devil’s work," he said. "I think this actually helps to fuel that spike in gang activity. People aren’t getting the programming and treatment they need in prisons and they turn to other things."

Liberal MP Wayne Easter said Conservative policies have turned a correctional system that once focused on rehabilitation and making people better citizens into a "warehouse for making better criminals."

"I think what we’re seeing is the tip of the iceberg of what’s happening to Canada’s correctional service system under the Harper government," he said. "I think we’re going the way of the Americans."

Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers said the spike in numbers is driven by more gang members being swept up by the criminal justice system, but also heavy recruitment behind bars.

Many inmates affiliate with gangs out of fear and self-preservation in the hostile prison environment, and some because there is not a lot to do in prisons, he said.  The federal government has spent $120 million on new technology, hardware and security intelligence officers, but little investment in programs for education, treatment and harm reduction.

"You have a lot of offenders who aren’t institutionally employed, they’re not in vocational programs, they have time on their hands," he said. "They interact with others, they may be in confined spaces, double-bunked with others – lots of opportunities for gang recruitment, lots of opportunities for illegal and contraband drug exchange. All that is driving the issue."