British Columbia

Overcrowding hampering Canada's prisons, says correctional investigator Howard Sapers

The new Canadian government has a lot of work to do according to Canada's prison watchdog, who says delays in prison release and overcrowding are still major issues.

Changes to prison policy the past 10 years were 'adhoc,' according to Sapers

Canada's correctional investigator says 'harsh' changes to prison policy the past 10 years have made living and working conditions worst in federal jails.

The new Canadian government has a lot of work to do according to Canada's prison watchdog, who says delays in prison release and overcrowding are still major issues.

Reforms to the federal corrections system the past 10 years have resulted in longer periods of custody, more instances of institutional violence, and more crowding says Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator.

"Many of the changes were, frankly, a little ad hoc. They weren't based on evidence or best practices," said Sapers, who has spent more than a decade studying Canada's prisons.

Crime rates are down, but Sapers says that has little to do with the "harsh" changes to prisons.

Many of the changes were, frankly, a little ad hoc. They weren't based on evidence or best practices.- Howard Sapers , Correctional Investigator

"In fact, crime rates were well down and trending downward prior to the last 10 years," he said.  

"That trend has continued despite of the fact that incarceration rates are increasing."

The Conservative government told Sapers it was going to find a replacement for his job in March, but he is currently on a temporary contract since the election interrupted the recruitment process.

Ongoing problems

Sapers says prisoners are seeing tremendous delays in terms of their release from prison and this creates problems for them down the road.

"The longer somebody stays inside a penitentiary cell, the less prepared, frankly, the are, for the community."

He explains prisoners have a better chance of succeeding in communities outside of jail if they are supervised by the parole system.

But nowadays, many are released with very little supervision, according to Sapers.

Sapers has been critical of the Conservative's prison policies in the past, recommending changes such as better treatment for aboriginal offenders, proper care for mentally ill inmates, and ending the overuse of solitary confinement. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Crowding inside prisons is another issue the new government will have to address.

Sapers says the problem is particularly critical in medium security prisons where crowding can lead to less than optimal living and working conditions, and can restrict access to vocational training and psychologists.

"All of that just adds stress to an already stressful environment -- that's counterproductive in terms of the rehabilitative goals of the corrective system."

The bottom line is money, said Sapers.

"We're spending a tremendous amount of money on our federal correction system right now and of course we want to make sure we get good value for that money," he said.

"I'm not convinced that's the case right now."


To listen to the full audio, click the link labelled: Howard Sapers, Canada's prison watchdog, on what's wrong with the corrections system.

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