Canada’s prison population at all-time high

Canada's prison population has reached an all-time high, and the number of visible-minority inmates has gone up 75 per cent in two decades, according to figures that will be part of the annual report from Canada's prison ombudsman to be released Tuesday.

Number of visible minority inmates increased by 75% in past decade

Canada’s prison population's at record high

10 years ago
Duration 3:10
Number of visible minority inmates increased by 75% in past decade

New figures show the number of visible minorities in Canadian prisons has increased by 75 per cent in the past decade, while the number and proportion of inmates who are Caucasian has declined significantly.

As well, Canada’s prison population is now at its highest level ever, even though the crime rate has been decreasing over the past two decades. Ten years ago, the number of inmates in federal prisons was close to 12,000. It’s now more than 15,000.

These are just some of the statistics expected to be examined Tuesday, when the annual report of Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers is tabled in Parliament. His report is widely expected to be a scathing indictment of federal correctional policy.

“You cannot reasonably claim to have a just society with incarceration rates like these,” Sapers said Sunday in a speech he gave at a church in Toronto. 

Sapers gave his audience a litany of grim figures. He pointed out that close to a quarter of all inmates are aboriginal even thought they make up only four per cent of the population. The rate of incarceration of aboriginal women increased by 80 per cent in the past decade.

Sapers said the situation is particularly critical for black and aboriginal inmates.

“These groups are over-represented in maximum security institutions and segregation placements. They are more likely to be subject to use of force interventions and incur a disproportionate number of institutional disciplinary charges. They are released later in their sentences and less likely to be granted day or full parole,” he said.

The statistics show that:

  • One in five inmates is over age 50.
  • The average level of education is Grade 8.
  • 80% of offenders have addiction or substance abuse problems.
  • 80% of federally sentenced women have been sexually abused.
  • 31% have Hepatitis C and 5% have HIV.
  • Almost half of all offenders required mental health care in the past year.

Sapers adds that overall spending in the Canadian justice system rose 23 per cent in the past decade. “During that same period, Canada’s crime rate fell by exactly the same proportion,” he said.  It now costs an average of $110,000 a year to house a male inmate, nearly twice as much to imprison a female inmate.

“The growth in the custody population appears to be policy, not crime driven. After all, crime rates are down while incarceration rates grow,” he said, adding that crime across Canada has been declining for more than a decade, long before the current government’s “tough on crime” agenda.

Sapers said the United States, with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, has changed course, having realized that more people in prison doesn’t mean safer streets. “If there was a relationship between public safety and incarceration, then the downtowns of the big American cities would be the safest environments in the world; they’re not,” he said.

The federal budget for the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has increased 40 per cent to $2.6 billion in the past five years, most of it being spent on building 2,700 new cells. Even then, Sapers said more than 20 per cent of inmates are now double-bunked in cells designed for one inmate. It’s a practice that was uncommon in the past and Sapers says is now leading to growing tensions inside prisons.

He compares it to a time 40 years ago when prison riots in Canada were common, including the infamous riot at the now-closed Kingston Penitentiary. “Many of the same problems that fuelled that explosion are still with us, crowding, too much time spent in cells; lack of contact with the outside world, lack of program capacity, the paucity of meaningful prison work or vocational skills training and polarization between inmates and custodial staff.”

Sapers said many of the inmates are sick and elderly and by law require health care which last year cost the corrections system $210 million.  

Under Canadian law, prison is supposed to be seen as a last resort and should be used as little as possible for the shortest time necessary.  As well, it says prisoners continue to have human rights and are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment.

Sapers says recent changes by the government that see inmates serving longer sentences, cuts in prison pay and imposing austere conditions do little to improve public safety; instead, he says it makes it more difficult to rehabilitate and reintegrate them back into society upon their release.


Maureen Brosnahan

National reporter with CBC Radio

Maureen is a veteran national reporter for CBC Radio. She joined CBC in Winnipeg and was appointed national reporter in 1991. She has since been the correspondent for national Radio News in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. She is now based in Toronto. She has won numerous awards for her work at CBC covering health and social policy issues.