Canada's prisons overcrowded: advocates

Canada's prisons are overcrowded and aging facilities, where inmates wait years for access to rehabilitation programs, advocates say a day before a major report is released on the issue.
Canadian prison ombudsman Howard Sapers, shown in this September photo, will release his annual report on Friday. ((Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press))

Canada's prisons are overcrowded and aging facilities, where inmates wait years for access to rehabilitation programs, advocates say a day before a major report is released on the issue.

Howard Sapers, the federal ombudsman for prisons, will release his annual report Friday. But ahead of that, advocates question how the government plans to cope with the 30 per cent increase in inmates expected as a result of its agenda to get tough on crime.

Double bunking is just one way Canada's prison system is attempting to cope with the influx of thousands of new inmates, even though it contravenes prison standards set by the United Nations.

The increase in double bunking inmates in cells is already causing fights and raising tensions, inmates and advocates say.

"It's just going to be crazy. They can't handle the unit they have now," said Lance Hemelaar, 40, who is serving time for impaired driving at Fenbrook Institution, north of Gravenhurst, Ont. He has only been incarcerated for a year but says he knows the effect of putting two prisoners in a cell the size of a small bathroom.

"You get two people my size, and I'm 230 pounds, you get two people in that room and someone's going to get hurt. You can have the nicest people in that room and you're going to snap."

Then add to this mix the likelihood that one of the bunkmates has serious mental health problems.

"You don't know if you have to sleep with one eye open, you don't know … what this other person's capable of," said Sean Johnston, who is serving a life sentence for murder. 

"When you're cramming two people that may not necessarily like each other into the same space … you're increasing the tension."

The government plan is to build even more cells, said Rick Sauve of Lifeline, a group that works with prisoners.

However, there's been no talk about expanding mental health, education or counselling services to accommodate an estimated 4,500 more prisoners over the next five years, according to Sauve.

Many inmates already wait years to get into rehabilitation programs, and the delays are already causing problems, Sauve said.

"There's a lot of unemployment, idleness, and that puts a lot of pressure on an institution."

Justin Piche of Carleton University, who has studied the government's prison expansion program, said the crowding and lack of programs are recreating conditions that led to the riots, hostage takings and murders common in Canadian prisons in the 1970s.

"If this is the path, the Correctional Service may as well change its name to the detention service or the human warehouse service of Canada because it's no longer in the business of corrections but warehousing people," he said.

While the government insists its plan is to keep Canadians safe, without access to treatment programs, inmates will be more dangerous to the public when they are eventually released, Piche said.


  • An earlier version of this story referred to the report written by Canada's Ombudsman for Prisons, Howard Sapers. In fact, CBC News does not have a copy of his report to be released Friday.
    Oct 17, 2013 10:38 PM ET