The federal government will spend $155.5 million to expand prisons in Ontario and Quebec, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced Thursday.

Of that, $95 million will go toward building new "living units" at the Bath, Collins Bay and Millhaven Institutions; the remaining $60 million will be spent on new beds at three minimum security institutions in Laval and the Federal Training Centre Montée St-François Institution in Laval, as well as the federal prison in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines.

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Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews said Wednesday the federal government has plans to construct additional prison units. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

The Conservatives say the expansions will improve the protection, safety and security of Canadians.

"Our government is proud to be on the right side of this issue — the side of law-abiding citizens, the side of victims who want justice, and the side that understands the cost of a safe and secure society is an investment worth making," Toews said.

Liberals accuse the Conservatives of "trying to transform Canada into the disaster that is California," where spending on the notoriously overcrowded correctional system is expected to top $9 billion in 2010-2011, representing more than seven per cent of the state's budget.

"Just like California, when we build all of these prison spaces, it sucks money like a vacuum out of health care, education, out of home care, out of priorities that Canadians have," public safety critic Mark Holland said earlier Thursday. "And guess what? It just doesn't work."

In total, the Conservatives pledged to add 580  new beds to the prison system, including:

  • Two 96-bed units at Bath Institution, a medium security prison west of Kingston.
  • One 96-bed unit at Collins Bay Institution, a medium security prison in Kingston.
  • One 96-bed unit at Millhaven Institution, a maximum security prison in Bath.
  • A total of 196 beds at the Federal Training Centre and Montée St-François Institution in Laval, and the Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines Institution.   

All of the units are expected to be completed in 2013-2014.

Dropping crime rate 'unacceptably high'

Construction of the new units is prompted by the country's crime rate, which Toews described Thursday morning  as "unacceptably high."

He did use the occasion, however,  to take a swipe at the Liberals, accusing them of gutting legislation the Conservatives considered tough on crime, such as Bill C-9, which would have limited the availability of conditional sentences for serious violent crimes.

"We believe that dangerous, repeat offenders should remain in prison until their debt to society has been paid," Toews said. "The rights of law-abiding Canadian citizens should trump the interests of [criminals]."

Toews dismissed reports from Statistics Canada that the crime rate is falling. In July, the statistical agency reported that "both the volume and severity of police-reported crime fell in 2009," three per cent from 2008 and 17 per cent from 1999.

"The crime isn't going down," Toews insisted. "It is still unacceptably high. Canadians should not be subjected to that kind of crime rate."